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Minister launches next generation of supercomputers for UK researchers

13 February 2012

Imagine if every person on the planet were able to carry out 250,000 calculations per second simultaneously. This is the combined capability of the next stage of development, announced today, of two giant computers, HECToR and BlueGene/Q, based at the University of Edinburgh's Advanced Computing Facility (ACF). It marks the next chapter in the UK's supercomputing programme.

The computers can deliver complex computer simulations across a range of scientific disciplines and are funded by four of the UK Research Councils, EPSRC, STFC, NERC and BBSRC. Their increased computing capacity and performance will help UK researchers' work in forecasting the impact of climate change, the fundamental structure of matter, fluctuations in ocean currents, projecting the spread of epidemics, designing new materials, the structure and evolution of the universe and developing useful new biological molecules.

Launching the new phases at an event jointly hosted by the University of Edinburgh and the UK Research Councils, Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, said: "E-infrastructure is fundamental to modern research and development. It helps our world-leading science base achieve breakthroughs across a range of important disciplines and helps industry design and manufacture new products.

"These impressive new supercomputers will drive growth and innovation. They will provide UK businesses and researchers with the technology they need to compete successfully on a global scale."

Mr Willetts also presented a plaque to the winner of a schools art competition to produce a design for the front panels of the HECToR computer.

Dr Amanda Collis, Head of Genomics, Data and Technologies at BBSRC said "High performance computing will be an important tool in the quest to deepen our understanding of fundamental biology. By helping us investigate complex biological systems high powered computing can equip biologists with the tools to deliver biotechnology applications to benefit society and the economy."

Professor Sir Timothy O'Shea, Principal of the University of Edinburgh, said: "We are delighted to host the next generation in supercomputing capability for researchers across the UK. HECToR and BlueGene/Q will each play a significant role in facilitating ground-breaking research across many areas of science, with tremendous benefits for society. We look forward to working with our partner organisations in delivering this computing capability and to seeing the contribution it will make."

Commenting on HECToR Phase 3, which has been funded by a £13.9 million grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which manages the service, Professor David Delpy, Chief Executive, said: "High Performance Computing is vital to supporting the development of science, discovery and new commercial partnerships. As HPC becomes more powerful, and it is possible to model more complex problems in greater detail, the types of simulation that HECToR is capable of become an increasingly valuable tool."

Professor John Womersley, Chief Executive Officer of STFC said: "Supercomputers are the essential, behind-the-scenes tools that enable modern science. Whether you are analysing climate data from a satellite, designing a new medicine or looking for the Higgs boson, access to high performance computers is vital. These new computers will undoubtedly facilitate breakthroughs across the scientific disciplines, and lead to additional economic and societal benefits for the UK."

Also announced at the launch was the winner of a schools art competition to design a pictorial representation of the work carried out by HECToR. The winning picture has been placed on the front panels of the computer.

The winner, sixteen-year-old Lily Johnson, from Hethersett Old Hall School, Nr Norwich, said: "I entered the HECToR design competition at the suggestion of my chemistry teacher, Miss Mann. After reading about the capabilities of the supercomputer I wanted to represent these in my design.

"The rain, cloud and sun represent mapping weather patterns and climate change, the volcano the prediction of natural disasters, the syringe and tablets the computer's application in medical advances, the leaf the advancing of understanding complex biological systems and the aeroplane the computer's role in improving engineering of aircraft.

"I put these around a globe as the work of the computer has global benefits. All the pictures are coloured in binary code to show how the technology links them all together.

"I am very honoured that my design has been chosen for the computer, as its work will be influential in so many fields. It is an amazing next technological step in the important issues affecting our lives, such as climate change."

Both the BlueGene/Q and HECToR facilities have approximately the same computational performance, 800 Teraflops (800 million million million million). HECToR has a memory of 90 Terabytes - equivalent to that of over 180,000 iPhones. It also has one Petabyte of disk space for storing data. If your iPhone had that much space it could hold 200 million tracks, and if you started listening to each one of them in 2012, you would still be listening in 3153.

The BlueGene/Q design achieves a very high concentration of computing power in a small space and is the most energy efficient supercomputer ever built. Using just the electricity it takes to power a light bulb it can perform the calculations of 100 laptops.


About HECToR

HECToR (High-End Computing Terascale Resources) is the UK's largest, fastest and most powerful supercomputer. It is capable of over 800 million million calculations a second that's over 114,000 calculations a second for every man, woman and child on Earth.

The HECToR facility is funded by Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' (BIS), EPSRC, The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), emphasising the breadth of science supported and has evolved in three phases since 2008.

HECToR phase 3 has been funded by a £13.9 million EPSRC grant.

HECToR's objectives are:

  • To provide a world-class service for UK-based academic research
  • To support the development of innovative computational technologies
  • To encourage industry and commerce to make effective use of high-end computing
  • To work with colleagues in Europe and worldwide

HECToR phase 3 uses the latest "Bulldozer" multicore processor architecture from AMD which theoretically allows twice the performance over the old architecture used in phase 2b. Learning to exploit these new architectures will place the UK at the forefront of scientific software development.

The EPSRC is the managing agent for the HECToR service on behalf of Research Councils UK (RCUK).

The facility has been delivered by the The HECToR Partners (UoE HPCX Ltd, NAG Ltd, University of Edinburgh, Cray Inc and STFC's Daresbury Laboratory), a consortium of organisations with international standing and many years of experience in this field.

About BlueGene/Q
BlueGene/Q is the most energy efficient supercomputer ever built. It can perform the calculation of 100 laptops using the same level of electricity used to power a lightbulb. It has been top of Green500 ranking since November 2010.

The University of Edinburgh BlueGene/Q computer chip is the result of a unique knowledge transfer and industrial partnership activity with IBM. It is part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council's DiRAC facility that provides specialised advanced HPC capability for some of the world's most complicated scientific problems in astronomy and particle physics.

The machine will allow UK particle physicists to provide precise theoretical input, needed in their search for new physics on high energy particle experiments such as the Large Hadron Collider. It focuses on solving the theory of the strong nuclear force to understand the properties of the bound states of quarks and gluons that form familiar particles like the proton and neutron in the atomic nucleus.

Providing early access to the machine gives the UK the edge in exploiting this new technology for science. This year BlueGene/Q will be upgraded to a 1.26Pflops/s combined system (1 Pflop is 1000 teraflops) making it one of the fastest computers in Europe and giving the UK a world-leading simulation capability matching those of our US and Japanese competitors.

HECToR Schools Art competition
In summer 2011, to mark the unveiling of the third phase of HECToR, the Research Councils launched a competition to produce a design for the front of the computer.

The competition was open to 11-16 year olds and the winning entry, from Lily Johnson of Hethersett Old Hall School, Nr Norwich, has been turned into a room-sized picture spanning the front panels of the HECToR supercomputer.

The winner received a contribution towards travel costs to attend the launch ceremony in Edinburgh, as well as a wall plaque for the school to mark their contribution to the understanding of science.

About The University of Edinburgh

The University of Edinburgh - Established in 1583, the University of Edinburgh is one of the UK's most important and historic Higher Education institutions. World renowned for its research and teaching, it is a member of the prestigious Russell Group, an association of the UK's 20 major research intensive universities. Student numbers currently stand at over 23,000 and the University employs more than 7,000 staff. Further information:

EPCC (Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre) and UoE HPCX Ltd
UoE HPCX Ltd is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the University of Edinburgh. With the signing of the HECToR agreement it holds the contracts to provide both the UK's national supercomputer services for academia. Its success is based on that of EPCC - a computational science research and technology transfer institute within the University. Founded in 1990, EPCC's mission is to accelerate the effective exploitation of novel computing solutions throughout academia, industry and commerce. Today, EPCC is the leading computational science technology transfer centre in Europe. Further information:

About Cray Inc

As a global leader in supercomputing, Cray provides highly advanced supercomputers and world-class services and support to government, industry and academia. Cray technology enables scientists and engineers to achieve remarkable breakthroughs by accelerating performance, improving efficiency and extending the capabilities of their most demanding applications. Cray's Adaptive Supercomputing vision will result in innovative next-generation products that integrate diverse processing technologies into a unified architecture, allowing customers to surpass today's limitations and meeting the market's continued demand for realised performance. Go to for more information.

About NAG

NAG is a not-for-profit organisation which grew out of academia over 30 years ago. NAG's libraries of mathematical and statistical components underpin thousands of programs and applications around the world in industries as diverse as financial analysis, science and engineering, and in academia and research. NAG's HPC team develops software for and supports users on a wide-range of high-end computers throughout the world.

About IBM United Kingdom

IBM is a globally integrated enterprise operating in over 170 countries. Today IBM UK has around 20,000 employees, bringing innovative solutions to a diverse client base to help solve some of their toughest business challenges. In addition to being the world's largest IT and consulting services company, IBM is a global business and technology leader, innovating in research and development to shape the future of society at large. IBM's prized research, development and technical talent around the world partner with governments, corporations, thinkers and doers on ground breaking real world problems to help make the world work better and build a smarter planet.


The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC invests around £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC also actively promotes public awareness of science and engineering. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.

About STFC

The Science and Technology Facilities Council is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs, monitoring and understanding climate change, and global security.

The Council has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar.

STFC operates or hosts world class experimental facilities including:

  • In the UK; ISIS pulsed neutron source, the Central Laser Facility, and LOFAR. STFC is also the majority shareholder in Diamond Light Source Ltd.
  • Overseas; telescopes on La Palma and Hawaii

It enables UK researchers to access leading international science facilities by funding membership of international bodies including European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institut Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

STFC is one of seven publicly-funded research councils. It is an independent, non-departmental public body of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

About NERC

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is the UK's main agency for funding and managing world-class research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. It coordinates some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on earth, and much more. NERC receives around £320 million a year from the government's science budget, which it uses to fund independent research and training in universities and its own research centres.


BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M, we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see:
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see:


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