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HEC hits the UK

With many world leaders still reluctant to significantly reduce carbon emissions, it seems the need for watertight evidence on the effects of global warming is greater than ever. But how can you possibly begin to understand the huge number of complex scenarios without ruining the planet first?

The answer is high-end computing, a new and improved version of which is scheduled to fall into the laps of scientists across the UK this October in the form of HECToR (High End Computing Terascale Resources).

Jennifer Houghton, project manager for HECToR, explained to the benefits of high-end computing: 'HEC allows you to carry out computational simulations of experiments investigating problems that are too big (e.g. the universe), too small (e.g. at the scale of the atom), too expensive or even too dangerous (e.g. nuclear weapon detonation) to do in reality.'

In addition to climate change, HECToR could also prove useful to answer questions across the whole of the natural sciences, including atomic, molecular and optical physics, computational chemistry, and it could even provide complex biological simulations on previously impossible scales.

High end computing is not a new idea - by definition, it resolves problems that are at the frontiers of computing, wherever that may be. 'High end computing is a moving target,' said Houghton. 'For example, what was a high end computing problem 10 years ago could easily be carried out on a desktop system today.'

Which is not to say there haven't been vast improvements: HECToR is predicted to be about four times larger than the current UK national HEC service HPCx, with some processes expected to run at least 10 times faster than before, allowing a greater number of larger, more complex problems to be solved than ever before.

HECToR is managed by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and will be housed at the University of Edinburgh’s Advanced Computing Facility. The project will run at 250 Tflop/s (250 trillion operations per second) at its peak, with a further upgrade planned for 2011. As a measure of its power, that’s 25,000 times greater than the processing power of the average desktop PC.

Of course, this kind of advance does not come without huge upheavals. To this end NAG (the Numerical Algorithms Group) will aid the scientific community in updating its codes to make use of HECToR's power.

Steve Hague, chief operating office at NAG, Oxford, explained that NAG will constantly review applications to make sure users are making use of the most efficient algorithms: 'It's important that the scientists can concentrate on the science and not the nitty-gritty issues of the computer science.

'There has never been this degree of software infrastructure of HEC in England. If it's successful, it will set the trend for this country, and across the world.'

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