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

High Performance Computing facilities await investment decision

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 change across 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.”

Its new Advanced Technology Cluster, Athena will inform the requirements of its next supercomputer.


The future of HPC in Australia is now in the hands of the government.

“The roadmap made a number of recommendations that the government will consider over the coming months,” education minister Simon Birmingham said at the time.

In the 2017-18 Budget, the government announced the development of a Research Infrastructure Investment Plan which will “inform its consideration of the 2016 Roadmap”.

The plan is being developed by the Department of Education and Training and the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science in consultation with the Commonwealth Science Council, Innovation and Science Australia and key stakeholders.

“The Plan will systematically assess the need for future research infrastructure investment, including HPC, against Government priorities and will be informed by the 2016 Roadmap and an inventory of existing national research infrastructure,” a Department of Education and Training spokesperson told Computerworld.

The importance of continued long-term investment cannot be overstated.

"We could not have done our work without access to Magnus," Boykins says. "The computations would have taken years on a normal computer. Without HPC, our work would stop."

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Tags supercomputersresearchhpcNational Computational Infrastructure (NCI)Australian National University (ANU)high performance computing (HPC)Simon BirminghamUniversity of Western Australia (UWA)Pawsey Supercomputing CentreAlan Finkel

More about AdvancedAustraliaAustralian National UniversityDepartment of IndustryNational ResearchTechnologyUniversity of Western Australia

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