Supercomputer to boost Australian astronomy

A simulation of dark matter distribution

A simulation of the spread of dark matter in the universe, produced using a current-generation Swinburne University supercomputer. The new supercomputer will be up to 100 times better.

A multi-million dollar upgrade to Swinburne University’s supercomputer will make it a leading research facility for the Australian astronomy community.

The upgrade, which will receive $1 million from the Federal Government’s Education Investment Fund (EIF) and $2 million from Swinburne, will dramatically increase the speed and capacity of the facility—now known as ‘gSTAR’.

The EIF funding will finance the installation of Graphics Processing Units (GPUs), or ‘extra brains’ for the supercomputer. Originally developed by the computer gaming industry, GPUs are a type of processor designed to perform simple tasks in a massively-parallel way that leads to enormous increases in computational power.

The Swinburne contribution will be used to upgrade the existing Central Processing Units (CPUs) and the mass storage system and pay for a new machine room to host the facility.

According to Swinburne astrophysicist Dr Darren Croton, the installation of the GPUs will boost the supercomputer’s speed between two and 100 times, depending on the application.

“This means an astrophysics simulation that would previously have taken three months to complete might only take a single day.

“This huge advance in power gives us the opportunity to tackle problems that are potentially 100 times harder,” he said.

A rack of computer equipment

The new supercomputer will used technology adapted from games computers.

Specially designed for astronomy

While there are other supercomputer facilities in Australia that are also starting to use GPU technology, they cater to a wide range of researchers and interests.

“Because these are general purpose facilities, they have to be set up in a very general way,” Croton said.

“The gSTAR’s power lies in its unique application. It will be optimised for astronomy simulations and data processing, which means it will have the same amount of power as other facilities for about one percent of the cost. That’s bang for your buck.”

Croton said that the university will make the gSTAR a national facility for astronomers across the country.

“We’re making the gSTAR and its predecessor available to astronomers from other universities and research centres.”

“In exchange the National Computational Infrastructure (NCI) National Facility is funding a support person who will provide expertise and guidance to researchers, helping them optimise their code.”

The upgrade, which will see the raw power of the Swinburne supercomputer go from 10 teraflops to 600 teraflops, is expected to be completed early- to mid-next year.

Adapted from information issued by Swinburne University / Image by Dr Gregory Poole, Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, Swinburne University of Technology.

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