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Australia's supercomputers need 'urgent' refresh, or life-saving research at risk

George Nott | Aug. 11, 2017
High Performance Computing facilities await investment decision.

The current ranking is only thanks to an upgrade last year - paid for by an emergency government 'Agility Fund' - which helped Raijin rise from 121st place in 2016.

"However, despite this upgrade, NCI's core computer is fast approaching the end of its serviceable life and requires urgent replacement," the NCI said in a statement last month.

Without upgrades, vital research cannot happen, says the NCI.

"Without a replacement for NCI's current computer, the competitiveness of Australia's research will suffer and much important research will simply not be possible," the organisation said.

It is not so much the hardware that is important, but the research it enables, says Pawsey's Schibeci.

"What is a supercomputer?" he says. "It is a very power hungry, very noisy piece of scientific equipment that allows researchers to answer their questions quicker, so they can ask the next question and the next question after that."


World saving work

Between them, Pawsey and the NCI have assisted in research to detect gravitational waves, develop disease resistant wheat, retrieve newly fallen meteorites, map the universe in three dimensions and model climate changeacross millennia. The facilities will also play a role in the Square Kilometre Array global project to investigate five fundamental questions about the universe.

"It's very exciting. I'm a computer nerd from way back. I've been allowed to look after larger and larger supercomputers, the largest in history," says Schibeci.

"I wake up in the morning knowing that I'm looking after a service that's allowing researchers to solve some really important scientific problems. [Boykin, for example, is] trying to develop ways to try to at least control if not eradicate that transfer of the virus. At a base level I'm helping someone to try and fight world hunger."

According to Australia's chief scientist Dr Alan Finkel the continuation of such research is at serious risk.

In May, Finkel released the National Research Infrastructure Roadmap. In it, he said the government needed to "urgently address" the HPC situation.

"An immediate priority is the need to refresh Australia's national HPC," the report states. "[It] underpins the most advanced analysis and simulations in research fields, such as medical science, environmental modelling, physics and astronomy and is vital to maintaining a globally competitive research system."

Pawsey "is eager to see this implemented" the group said. The NCI said if it's supercomputer "is not upgraded soon Australia's research capability will be compromised".

Pawsey is nevertheless already planning for Magnus' replacement. It must.

"Because it moves so fast we just need to be nimble in terms of looking at the services that we provide to Australian researchers," Schibeci says. "And that's why we try to always look for where those opportunities lie."


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