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Netherlands to build new national supercomputer

The Netherlands has laid out plans for its next national supercomputer, to be known as Snellius

SURF, the Dutch cooperative association in which educational and research institutions join forces, is to get its most powerful supercomputer yet. 

The supercomputer, known as Snellius, will be built by Lenovo and will give even more calculating power to scientific research in the Netherlands. With a peak performance of 14 petaflops/s, it will be the most powerful high-performance computing system in the country.  

On 1 February, Lenovo and SURF signed an agreement for the construction of the supercomputer, based on server technology from AMD and Nvidia. The system will be delivered in three phases, with the first phase to be operational by July. Phase two will follow by mid-2022 and the final phase a year later.  

The supercomputer will be named after famous Dutch scientist Snellius. The name was chosen partly because of its association with the Dutch word snel, meaning fastWillebrord Snel van Royen, also known by his Latin name Snellius, was a Dutch mathematician and physicist, humanist, linguist and astronomer who lived from 1580 to 1626.

In the last years before his death, he worked as a professor of mathematics at Leiden University. He is best known for the optics law of Snellius, which indicates how light rays are broken at the transition from, for example, air to glass.  

The new Dutch supercomputer replaces Cartesius, which, according to Walter Lioen, SURF’s research service manager, was in need of replacement a long time ago. The oldest parts of Cartesius, the processors, date from 2013 and are already past their economic life. “Technologically, Cartesius is outdated and obsolete,” said Lioen. “For the same investment, you can now buy much more computing power.” 

The replacement for Cartesius will cost €20m. Of this, 18m will come from a government grant and the remaining €2m will be financed by SURF from its own resources. The intention is for the Snellius supercomputer to be replaced in five years’ time and extended twice during its lifetime. The system should eventually reach a speed of between 13.6 and 21.5 petaflops. Cartesius is calculated at 1.8 petaflops.  

This means Snellius will have almost 10 times the computing power of its predecessor. Researchers use the system for very complex calculations that would be impossible with an “ordinary” computer. Using the latest generation of CPUs and GPUs, the machine is also well equipped for machine learning. 

Snellius will be built on Lenovo ThinkSystem servers with AMD EPYC processors (the latest generation, 7H12, and a future generation) and the latest-generation Nvidia GPUs (A100). It is important to SURF that the new supercomputer is as energy-efficient as possible. The water-cooling technology used will cool the system down by about 90%, which means much less air cooling with fans is needed, reducing energy consumption and increasing performance at the same time.  

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Construction of the new supercomputer has started and the system should be operational for Dutch researchers from 1 July. Like its predecessor, Snellius is located in the Amsterdam Data Tower at the Amsterdam Science Park. It will be used for about 200 research projects a year, ranging from simulations of protein folding to searching for patterns in large amounts of text and calculating climate models. 

Through the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, scientists can request time on the supercomputer. There is always a need for more computing power, says Lioen, adding: “There is always room for more variables in a model, or you can increase the accuracy. Computing power is actually the only limiting factor.”

Snellius is the Netherlands’ seventh-generation supercomputer. The first saw the light of day in 1984 and was actually nothing more than a very fast and large computer. “It was 10 to 100 times faster than the largest mainframe you could buy at the time,” Lioen told Dutch website NRC. “You could do an incredible amount more computations on it, not only faster, but also with more memory. Calculations could become larger and more accurate.”

The current generation of supercomputers consist of a network of servers working closely together in a large cluster of computing power, with the network between the servers enabling the system to perform calculations at enormous speeds. 

When Snellius becomes operational on 1 July, its predecessor will be dismantled. And in five years’ time, the same fate awaits Snellius. Funding for the next supercomputer has already been arranged and again consists of a government grant supplemented by contributions from users.

But until then, the new Dutch supercomputer will first receive a substantial increase in its computing power with the next generation of AMD chips, which are not yet on the market. In the final phase, SURF can choose to add extra video cards to the system, more storage space or even more processors.

Depending on the choices made, the system should eventually offer between 13.6 and 21.5 petaflops of computing power, probably putting it among the 500 fastest supercomputers in the world, but it is not yet clear where Snellius will be ranked on that list. Since last November, the top 500 list has been led by Japanese supercomputer Fugaku, with almost 442 petaflops and an estimated price tag of about 800m.

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