ANU Supercomputer Facility - Annual Report 1998



Highlights of 1998



National High Performance Computing and Communications Program Announced

The highlight of the year was the announcement by Dr David Kemp, Minister for Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs of Commonwealth Government funding for a national high performance computing and communications program to be known as the Australian Partnership for Advanced Computing, APAC. The ANU was invited to be the host organization for this national partnership which was provided with $19.5M initial funding from DEETYA. APAC will support a range of regional activities and will also acquire internationally competitive peak computing systems. As well as improving the high performance computing infrastructure available to researchers, APAC will conduct programs in the areas of education and training, research and industry diffusion, with the goal of positioning Australia in the top ten countries in the use of high performance computing technology. During 1998 the Vice Chancellor Professor Deane Terrell served on an Interim Board which was advised by an Expert Group of which Dr Gingold, Head, ANUSF was a member. At the end of the year an initial APAC Board was formed of which the Vice Chancellor Prof Terrell is a member. The building and activities of the Partnership are planned to be under way early in 1999.

Visualisation Laboratory (VizLab) and the Virtual Environments Project - WEDGE

In 1998 the Facility began exploring the utility of Virtual Environment tools (or Virtual Reality) to the work of its users. As well as beginning collaboration in this area with the Virtual Environment program in ACSys, the Facility collaborated in building a low cost VE system called the WEDGE in a joint project with the Plasma Research Laboratory, RSPhysSE.

The WEDGE allows several researchers to be immersed in 3-Dimensional interactive images of their data by projecting stereo images onto two large screens. The complex software for this was developed entirely in-house. In contrast with systems developed overseas, the WEDGE is relatively inexpensive and is affordable at the departmental or even work-group level.
The WEDGE was initiated by Dr Rod Boswell (PRL, RSPhysSE) and Dr Henry Gardner (DCS and ANUSF) with technical input provided by Drew Whitehouse (ANUSF) who also wrote all the software for the system. The WEDGE was formally opened in April by the Chief Minister of the ACT, Kate Carnell.

The software, pSpace, can support one or multi-screen virtual environments and drive either relatively low-cost graphics enhanced PCs or more powerful Silicon Graphics workstations. The choice of screen configuration and computer power can be made to satisfy the demands of the user.

In December, the WEDGE was transported to the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney for a conference and also displayed to the general public. The Powerhouse plans to install its own system as part of a permanent exhibit in 1999. By the end of the year, a small number of researchers were beginning to use the WEDGE in their day to day research work.

The growing demand for more general visualisation services and training has been temporarily met by the secondment of Stuart Ramsden from the Australian Centre for the Arts and Technology, Institute of the Arts. With the support of RIBG funds, Dr Ajay Limaye joined the VizLab's staff to also work on a Faculties Visualisation Support Project. This was begun in the second half of the year and focuses on assisting researchers in the Faculties to make use of visualisation tools in their research.

The Australian Cooperative Supercomputer Facility (ACSF)

In 1998 a successful application to the Australian Research Council's RIEF Program resulted in a $1M grant for mass data storage infrastructure being made to the ACSF consortium. ACSF was initiated in 1991 by the ANU in conjunction with regional computational consortia representing almost all the New South Wales and South Australian universities. The University of Queensland joined the ACSF in 1997. The consortium members operate four large Silicon Graphics PowerChallenge systems located at the ANU, NSW (Advanced Technology Park), the University of Adelaide and a larger Origin 2000 system the University of Queensland. The ACSF has been supported by several substantial ARC infrastructure grants. In 1998 the focus was on implementing the visualisation and virtual environments programs supported by RIEF Program funding awarded in 1997.

External Use Scheme

Since 1988 the University has made over ten per cent of its Fujitsu supercomputer systems available to other universities free of charge. In 1997 the Scheme was extended to the Silicon Graphics PowerChallenge system, the other principal computational system in ANUSF, thereby offering not only a substantial resource to the Australian university research community, but also alternative computer architectures to suit a broader range of research problems. The VPP300 was oversubscribed and heavily used by external users during the year with the total usage amounting to around 15% of the available resources. Over 130 researchers at 15 other universities were involved in projects under this scheme.

Computational Science and Engineering Education Program

This program is a joint initiative of the ANUSF and the Department of Computer Science (DCS), Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology (FEIT) and aims to deliver undergraduate, postgraduate and industrial courses focussed on applying the tools of high performance computing to problems in science and engineering. Dr Henry Gardner, DCS and ANUSF and Dr Alistair Rendell, ANUSF, presented undergraduate courses in FEIT to third and fourth year students and collaborated in presenting other courses with DCS and Advanced Computational Systems Cooperative Research Centre (ACSys) staff. Contributions were also made to computational courses in the Department of Physics and Theoretical Physics.

The High Performance Computing Laboratory (HPC Lab) , which is maintained by the Facility in the Computer Science and Information Technology building for this educational program, was also used to deliver other courses and workshops by the Research School of Chemistry, the ACSys CRC, the Department of Computer Science, as well as being used for the Facility's own training courses. The HPC Lab was also used for projects by students from the Australian Centre for Arts and Technology and the Department of Engineering, FEIT.

Internationally Competitive Supercomputer Systems

The University's Fujitsu VPP300 was one of the most powerful university-based supercomputers in the world when installed in 1996 and in 1998, although well into its planned lifetime, it remained the most powerful system in an Australian university. The VPP300 provides a rare opportunity for researchers to tackle the most computationally demanding problems at an internationally competitive level using relatively mature computer architecture. As part of the ACSF multi-state consortium (see above) the Facility also operates a SGI PowerChallenge system for more general applications.

With a view to exploring new paradigms for tackling computationally intensive research the Facility installed a cluster of 'alpha' chip workstations running under the Linux operating system in late 1998. The aim is to investigate the technology for use at the departmental or work group level as well as its potential for a major university system. This project is being conducted jointly with the Department of Computer Science, FEIT.

Massive Data Storage System

The volume of dataarchived on the data storage system doubled over the last year to 20 TeraBytes. The massive data storage system installed in 1994 was the first such system acquired by an Australian university. This system is used to manage and store large volumes of data from a range of scientific projects including output from the supercomputer systems, experimental data, and video output. To cope with the increased demand in 1998 the system was reorganised to remove a number of system bottlenecks and to accommodate the access patterns of several large projects. In addition, a suite of locally developed programs were created to automatically manage some system tasks and better integrate the storage system with other equipment around campus.

A secure, web-based metadata data search and retrieval system interfacing to the archival files on the MDSS was developed in 1998, initially prototyped on a project for researchers at MSSSO. The package enables a project to seamlessly deliver data files to the Web community from the massive data storage system. Access to data is managed by the project leader who can define unlimited, group, or individual access to a project's archive files.

Fujitsu Research and Development Relationship

The research and development relationship between the University and Fujitsu Limited entered its twelfth year in 1998. Under this agreement, the Supercomputer Facility has been involved in a number of software development and research projects in conjunction with other sections of the University (including the School of Mathematical Sciences, Computer Sciences Laboratory, RSISE, the Department of Computer Science, the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies and the John Curtin School of Medical Research).

As well as participating in the research and technical aspects of these projects, the Supercomputer Facility takes overall responsibility for the management of two of the three major areas of the research relationship with Fujitsu. These are the Chemistry and Molecular Modelling project (including a research project in molecular modelling in conjunction with the Computational Molecular Biology and Drug Design Group, JCSMR) and the Parallel Mathematical Subroutine Library project. Both these projects have links to the 'CAP' project in parallel computing centred in DCS, FEIT and CSL, RSISE. The Parallel Mathematical Subroutine Library project has provided a state-of-the-art library for the VPP systems. The Chemistry and Molecular Modelling has been highly successful in optimising key computational chemistry software packages and applying them to leading-edge research problems. The work has benefited greatly from the feedback between the optimisation and research elements of the project.

Other Activities

The Facility provided support to ACSys in a demonstration of virtual collaboration across several continents which was featured at the SC'98 high performance computing conference in Orlando in November.


Thirty-six papers by Supercomputer Facility staff members were published or in press in 1998.

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