University of Aberdeen ‘unlocking the potential of supercomputing’

Dean Phillips, from the University of Aberdeen, explains how supercomputing capabilities have supported research at the university on campus and remotely

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen are benefitting from the University’s continued investment in innovative technologies, one of which is the high-performance computing (HPC) supercomputing cluster, named Maxwell. Designed, integrated and managed by OCF – an HPC, storage, cloud and AI specialist – it provides large amounts of on-site and remote computational processing power to ensure the development of world-class research remains of utmost importance. Over the past couple of years, the University’s HPC usage has rocketed by 50%.

Maxwell is being used to teach graduates and postgraduate students in specialist subjects such as AI and bioinformatics, fields that are important to modern research and STEM careers, providing them with a unique opportunity to access HPC capacity. 

Aberdeen is a research-intensive university; having our own HPC system has helped the university attract new researchers, research funding and expand existing programmes. It is highly beneficial for our researchers to have on-site and remote access to HPC infrastructure, particularly when securing start-up funds.

Unlocking the potential of supercomputing for pioneering research
Researchers and students are using Maxwell to complete that would otherwise take thousands of desktop computers to process.

Research boosted by supercomputing 

Maxwell supports ground-breaking research at the University’s Centre for Genome-Enabled Biology and Medicine (CGEBM) and provides a centralised HPC system for the whole university with applications in medicine, biological sciences, engineering, chemistry, maths, and computing science. 

Researchers are using Maxwell in various schools across a wide range of disciplines and research topics – including genome sequencing and analysis, chemical pathway simulation, climate change impact assessment and financial systems modelling – and as a catalyst for interdisciplinary research in areas such as systems biology.

With Maxwell’s supercomputing capabilities, the university’s CGEBM has been able to rapidly analyse complex genomics datasets from known and novel organisms and help researchers revolutionise the study of the Earth’s biodiversity and complex ecosystems important to health and disease, agriculture and the environment. It is estimated that only around 1% of the Earth’s biodiversity is easily culturable in a laboratory, and there is little knowledge of most living organisms on the planet.

Maxwell can provide over a thousand desktop computers’ worth of resources for days on end, completing the work a single desktop computer would take a year to do in just one day. Therefore, the HPC cluster is paramount to the continued success of research work, especially when we were forced to take work off-campus at the start of the pandemic in 2020. The HPC service is suited to solving problems that require considerable computational power or involve huge amounts of data that would normally take weeks or even months to analyse on a desktop PC.

Remote access support

With a complete remote way of working instilled, researchers, staff and students alike needed constant access to Maxwell to utilise the sheer scale of computing power to carry on with life-changing research projects. We understood support was key and upped our game further by developing digital skills workshops for the research community. With support from OCF, we developed a teaching and training HPC environment called Macleod, which supports over 30 courses, increasing visibility, and understanding of Maxwell.

The sessions were well received, upscaling the uptake of the system as a new bank of individuals wanted to understand and use it. Through working remotely, there is now a bigger active audience with an eagerness to adopt nascent technologies and adapt to new ways of working. As a result, when lockdown started the usage of Maxwell doubled and the use of our HPC cluster is still well above the pre-pandemic baseline, meaning results are delivered faster, new discoveries and game-changing products are developed and improved times for science and market are realised.

Local innovation

Another benefit is that we had the foresight to recognise the potential of the HPC and how it could affect the wider community to positively impact people and everyday lives. So, as well as supporting the university, the HPC service has also been broadened to support regional business initiatives to drive much-needed economic growth and innovation in the area.

At Aberdeen, we are passionate about making a difference and delivering outcomes that affect real life. We are very connected to the business community in Aberdeen – and we have worked closely with the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) to engage with local start-ups that could use Maxwell to support their research. Maxwell has the ability to do algorithm work, driving AI innovation to support the NHS in Aberdeen.

We have a huge part to play, and these are exciting times. The university is committed to annual investment, constant review and service planning for new and innovative research, ensuring we are consistently delivering service refresh to meet and exceed service requirements. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what can be achieved with Maxwell.

Dean Phillips is the assistant director of digital and information services at the University of Aberdeen.

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