Pawsey unboxes the most powerful supercomputer in southern hemisphere

Image credit: Timofeev Vladimir /

The Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Kensington, Western Australia, has just powered up the most powerful supercomputer in the southern hemisphere, the Advanced Technology Cluster (ATC) system – officially named Athena – which features 20 quad-node Intel Xeon Phi servers and eleven nVidia Tesla P100 servers.

David Schibeci, head of supercomputing at Pawsey, told Disruptive.Asia that when the decision was made to replace Magnus (Pawsey’s current petascale supercomputer), a call went out to see what technologies the researchers were interested in. Magnus was an Intel Xeon-based supercomputer by Cray. Schibeci says he looked at everything – ARM, GPU, Phi and Tofu Interconnect – but the message that came back loud and clear from researchers was that they wanted next-generation Xeon Phi and Omnipath, as well as NVidia GPUs, hence the design. The award for the contract went out to Silicon Graphics International, an HPE company.

The center has more than 50 scientific codes that it will need to run to see how it can perform and be optimized for the new platform. Schibeci says that the system had just been powered up last week and that SGI was still running tests on it. Soon, Athena will be opened up, allowing researchers to learn about the new Phi and Intel Omni Path interconnect architecture, having already built up expertise with Infiniband over the years. Schibeci said that Athena’s scale was not huge, but it would allow researchers to push these new technologies to the limit to understand where the next bottlenecks will come from.

The nVidia GPU part of the cluster is much more mature and well known for its achievements in machine learning and artificial intelligence. One research project on the existing Magnus by researchers at Edith Cowan University trained a neural net to recognize weeds to allow for automated drone-spraying. Another Magnus project was the creation of a 3D model of a shipwreck from 750,000 photographs taken by two ROVs.

Going forward, Pawsey is a key player in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project, scheduled to go online in 2024. Pawsey will be providing 30 Petaflops of computing power to analyze the signals from space delivered from the SKA to Perth over a 100-Gbps link.

The majority of the funding for Pawsey comes from Australian Federal and State budgets – hence the focus is on providing supercomputing services for Australian researchers, with the SKA being an exception due to its multinational nature. However, Schibeci hopes that one day Pawsey will be able take center stage in an ISC (formerly the International Supercomputing Conference)-type conference in APAC focused on bringing together researchers and resources in the region.

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