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In a nondescript building in Perth’s southern suburbs, the biggest supercomputer in the southern hemisphere is taking shape.
The Pawsey Supercomputing Centre, already a behemoth of scientific data processing, just put the first stage of its new supercomputer through a demanding “stress test” – and it gave a stellar performance.
Or, perhaps that should be an “ex-stellar” performance. As part of its integration into the Pawsey system, the supercomputer produced a highly detailed image a giant cloud of dust and material left behind after a star died in a violent explosion known as a supernova.
The data for that image came from the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder radio telescope in Western Australia’s Mid West, and focused on a supernova remnant between 10,000 and 15,000 light years away.
CSIRO ASKAP research scientist Dr Wasim Raja said the supercomputer – Setonix – processed the extremely complicated data from a 10-hour observation in fewer than five hours.
Raja said that particular supernova remnant was chosen to test the supercomputer because of its complexity – it was not especially easy to process and the diffuse cloud of dust and gas was not exactly alone in its patch of sky.
“Setonix’s large, shared memory will allow us to use more of our software features and further enhance the quality of our images. This means we will be able to unearth more from the ASKAP data,” Raja said.
The test was the latest step in a $70 million upgrade to the Pawsey centre, with the supercomputer being installed in two stages.
When Setonix’s second stage is rolled out later this year, it will become the largest supercomputer in the southern hemisphere, Pawsey supercomputing applications specialist Dr Pascal Elahi said.
“The goal of the capital refresh was to really have a game-changing computational footprint for Western Australia,” Elahi said.
“So we went from about one petabyte for the Australian research communities, as provided by Pawsey, to, at the end of the full deployment of Setonix, will be about 50 petabytes.”
The first stage of the upgrade already represents a 45 per cent increase in raw computing power compared to the centre’s Magnus and Galaxy supercomputers.
To put it in perspective, a regular computer has four to eight cores to complete separate tasks with. Setonix phase one has almost 65,000 cores, and when the supercomputer is complete it will boast more than 200,000 cores across 1608 nodes.
Stage two will also incorporate 768 high-end graphics processing units – or GPUs, familiar to fans of computer gaming – to boost the supercomputer’s capabilities.
As Elahi put it; it would take a regular laptop roughly a quarter of a year to complete the equivalent of a minute’s work for Setonix.
Radio astronomy is going to be one of the big benefactors of the Pawsey centre upgrade – by its very nature it takes a huge amount of computing and memory – but a range of scientific disciplines from molecular dynamics to particle physics also have use for Setonix.
And then there’s research on the computer itself.
“Using supercomputers is not as simple as using a normal computer,” Elahi said.
“It’s not a matter of just taking a program and running it faster.
“So there’s actually active areas of research just in using the hardware super well.”
And for such a big West Australian project, which will spend a lot of time processing data from another major project further north in the state, it’s only fitting that Setonix draws its name from one of the state’s most recognisable animals – the quokka.
Setonix brachyurus is the scientific name for the fuzzy marsupial found largely on Rottnest Island and made famous internationally through a cute smile and a series of celebrity selfies.
An outline of a quokka even adorns the Setonix case at the Pawsey centre.