Aust gets one of the world’s most powerful computers

Australia’s national science agency CSIRO has launched a high-performance computer (HPC) system, ranked 72 in the top 500 most powerful computers in the world.

Named Virga, the $14.5 million system is built on Dell PowerEdge XE9640 servers and is the first of its kind in Australia.

Elanor Huntington, Executive Director Digital, National Facilities and Collections at CSIRO says Virga will provide computing infrastructure needed for machine learning and AI to grow Australia’s industry and economy.   

“We are proud to be a steward of some of Australia’s most important pieces of research infrastructure,” Huntington says.

“AI is used in practically all fields of our research, including flexible printed solar panels, predicting fires, measuring wheat crops and developing vaccines. 

“High-performance computing systems like Virga also play an important role in our robotics and sensing work and are crucial to the recently launched National Robotics Strategy to drive competitiveness, and productivity of Australian industry.”

The HPC cluster, housed at the Canberra Data Centre (CDC), is named Virga after the meteorological effect of rain that evaporates before it reaches the ground. The cluster was named in recognition of CSIRO’s research into cloud and rain physics. 

The Virga computing cluster features: 

  • NVIDIA H100 Tensor Core graphics processing units (GPUs) accelerators to support deep learning, machine learning and AI.    
  • 94GB of high-bandwidth memory per GPU.
  • Transformer Engine – significantly speeds up AI performance and capabilities and helps train large models within days or even hours. 
  • 4th Generation Intel Xeon scalable processors.
  • Hybrid direct liquid cooling to reduce the need for energy intensive air cooling.

CSIRO moved more than 50 tonnes of IT equipment in Canberra to a new purpose-built facility, to enable Virga to be built.

Chief Technology Officer Angus Macoustra says the project has paved the way for future growth in artificial intelligence, machine learning and digital science.

“The installation of Virga has not only modernised our IT infrastructure but also keeps us at the forefront of accelerated computing and Australian innovation, which will deliver significant benefits to our researchers,” Macoustra says.

In 2009 CSIRO pioneered the introduction of accelerated computing in Australia using Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) with the first CSIRO GPU Cluster.

Accelerated computing offloads certain calculations from a computer’s central processing unit (CPU) to a co-processor. This parallel processing took off in 2008 with the inclusion of Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) as co-processors in supercomputers.

Nvidia originally developed multi-core GPUs for image rendering in games and desktop computing in 1999. It wasn’t until the late noughties that Nvidia made it possible to program these numerous cores for other tasks.

The above graph shows the peak computing performance of the most capable computer available to CSIRO since CSIR MK 1 in 1949.  The performance has increased by nearly 14 orders of magnitude to 2023. 

CSIRO’s journey with computers goes back many decades to 1949, with Australia’s first stored-program electronic digital computer, CSIR Mk 1 – later re-named CSIRAC.

The first “supercomputer” was the purchase of the Cray Y-MP in 1990.

Virga is the fourth generation of general-purpose GPU clusters, performing 60 times faster than CSIRO’s first machine back in 2009.

Australia’s computers

This is a version of an article which first appeared as “Advanced, energy efficient computing cluster speeds up science.”

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