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Multi-million pound supercomputer speeds up research at the University of Bristol

26 May 2017

Research and teaching at the University of Bristol will now benefit from one of the fastest and most advanced supercomputing facilities in the UK, capable of up to 600 trillion calculations per second.

The new multi-million pound system, called Blue Crystal 4 (BC4), is three times faster than its predecessor and will allow researchers to process vast amounts of complex data at record speeds.

Over 1,000 researchers and PhD students in areas such as paleobiology, biochemistry, physics, molecular modelling, life sciences, and aerospace engineering will benefit from the new system.

Supercomputers are regarded as the 'third pillar' of modern research due to their important role in speeding up calculations and analysis which would previously have taken many years to complete.

The University of Bristol has invested £16 million in High Performance Computing (HPC) and research data storage in the last 10 years. Uses for Blue Crystal have evolved to include teaching, with students on six courses learning how to use HPC for research projects and real-life applications.

Professor Nishan Canagarajah, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University of Bristol, said: "This new supercomputer reinforces Bristol's position as one of the leading centres for HPC in the world.  Over the past 10 years, its role in world-leading, often life-saving research, has become even more evident and we’re committed to staying ahead of the game.

"In addition to research, we take pride in offering taught courses on HPC for our students which prepare them for their future in this important field."

Designed, integrated and configured by the HPC, storage and data analytics integrator OCF, BC4 has more than 15,000 cores making it the largest UK university system by core count and a theoretical peak performance of 600 Teraflops.

Dr Christopher Woods, EPSRC Research Software Engineer Fellow at the University of Bristol, said: "We have researchers looking at whole-planet modelling with the aim of trying to understand the earth's climate, climate change and how that’s going to evolve, as well as others looking at rotary blade design for helicopters, the mutation of genes, the spread of disease and where diseases come from.

"Early benchmarking is showing that the new system is three times faster than our previous cluster – research that used to take a month now takes a week, and what took a week now only takes a few hours. That's a massive improvement that'll be a great benefit to research at the University."

Bristol Biochemistry's Dr Richard Sessions is one of the University's early adopters of BC4. Dr Sessions said: "BC4 is breathtakingly fast. One of our collaborations involves a BBSRC funded Lola Award shared between research groups at the Universities of Bristol, Kent and London to study bacterial microcompartments that act as factories in bacterial cells. In some cases these microcompartments allow bacteria to utilise alternative nutrient sources in order to gain selective advantage. Dr. Debbie Shoemark in Biochemistry is looking for small molecules to disrupt the assembly of these factories, to see if this could lead to a novel approach for anti-bacterial drug development. We have just docked about eight million drug-like molecules to one of the microcompartment proteins in just one day (BC3 took ~3 weeks for equivalent work). This process required calculating the binding energy of ~20 trillion protein-ligand poses with our software BUDE that makes full use of the CPUs and GPUs in BC4."

The new system is ranked 301 in the world, according to the Top500 list which analyses the world's 500 fastest supercomputers. It was launched at a special symposium in Bristol on 24 May. 

Simon Burbidge, the University's new Director of Advanced Computing, said: "It is with great excitement that I take on the role of Director of Advanced Computing. My predecessor, Ian Stewart, has made a tremendous contribution in developing the Blue Crystal facility. I look forward to building on this foundation and enabling the University's ambitious research programmes through the provision of the latest computational techniques and simulations."

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