Singapore shoots up supercomputing rung with Aspire 1

March 13th, 2019 | by Grace Chng

A supercomputer from Singapore will soon jump almost 400 places to join the ranks of the world’s 20 most powerful machines. Singapore will be the third Asian nation to do so, after China and Japan.

Aspire 1, the largest supercomputer here with 1 Petaflop of compute power, will receive an upgrade later this year that boosts its processing speed to between 15 Petaflop and 20 Petaflop, about three years after it came online in 2016.

This will push Aspire 1’s ranking to the top 20, up from 422nd position in the Top500 listing of supercomputers in the world released in November 2018.

The Top500 list is a “moving” lineup of supercomputers where newer, more powerful ones push rankings down. Aspire 1 was ranked 93rd in the Top500 list in June 2016.

Supercomputers are mostly used for hardcore scientific, engineering and medical research, including molecular biology, earth and atmospheric science, bioengineering, nuclear and isotopic science and cybersecurity.

The United States currently holds the two top spots in the Top500 list. Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee has the current most powerful supercomputer called Summit. It is capable of 200 Pflops.

Next is the 125 Pflops Sierra located at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Then comes the National Supercomputing Centre in Wuxi, China with the Sunway TaihuLight at 125 Pflops and another in Guangzhou, China, called the Tianhe-2A, which boasts 100 Pflops.

After these four systems, the rest of the top 20 spots have much lower computational power. In fifth place is the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre called Pix Daint which sports 27 Pflops. At 20th place is Taiwan’s National Centre for High PerformanceComputing with Taiwania 2 that has 15 Pflops.

What can Singapore’s 15 Pflops do? At this scale, the Aspire 1 is akin to taking a million laptops and equipping them with high network capability. Applications are vast.

It can take just a few months to scan the genetic material of over 200 gastric cancer tumours compared to 30 years using slower computers.

Coupled with data gathered from gene sequencing and electronic health records, the knowledge will help medical researchers and doctors offer precision medicine which promises healthcare specially tailored for the individual.

Already used for weather modelling, a supercomputer like Aspire 1 will further enhance weather prediction at a more micro level. For example, it can analyse data such as temperature, windflow and rainfall to predict local climate and weather changes.

The upgrade is part of the Singapore government’s plan to scale up its capabilities in computation as Singapore’s pursues its smart nation strategy and an innnovation-based future economy.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat unveiled a S$200 million investment in supercomputing yesterday when he opened the annual Supercomputing Asia 2019 conference at Suntec Convention Centre. The investments will see Aspire 1 being upgraded together with software and networking capabilities.

As he rightly puts it, the investment is critical. It enables Singapore to keep up with its partners globally and to solve complex challenges in urban mobility, healthcare and other fields.

Techgoondu understands that plans have already been drawn up for the upgrade. More announcements can be expected from the National Supercomputing Centre Singapore, the lead agency that will drive the Republic’s strategy in this field.

Supercomputing has been part of Singapore’s IT strategy for the past 30 years. The journey began over three decades ago when bureaucrat Philip Yeo, a pioneer in the country’s national computerisation strategy, set up the country’s first supercomputing agency called Advanced Computation Centre. It operated as a bureau service, offering supercomputing services to the private sector.

However, it was not until the establishment of the Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC) in 1998 that supercomputing took off, with more industry work undertaken with the private sector.

IHPC helped in the modelling of the Buangkok MRT station for fire safety, and it helped Far East Organisation to transform the iconic Fullerton Building into a five-star hotel. It created virtual 3D models of the building’s interior to let architects select the optimum interior design. 

Looking ahead, the 15 Pflop to 20 Pflop Aspire 1 will be involved in more artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning applications and quantum computing projects. As a strategic technology, it is expected to enable more collaborations in other scientific areas to emerge.

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