From Big Bang to getting more bang for the buck
The EPCC, the supercomputing centre at the University of Edinburgh, recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. It was time to reflect on the quantum leaps achieved in technology since the centre was founded and turn the spotlight on some of the weird and wonderful projects it has handled through the years – focusing on everything from particle physics to mushrooms...…
Article by Peter Barr
The EPCC, the supercomputing centre at the University of Edinburgh, recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. It was time to reflect on the quantum leaps achieved in technology since the centre was founded and turn the spotlight on some of the weird and wonderful projects it has handled through the years – focusing on everything from particle physics to mushrooms...
It has one of the most powerful computers in the world, but the EPCC uses its impressive number-crunching resources to investigate not only the origins of life in the cosmos but also the secrets of vegetable starters. One moment it is doing mind-boggling research into particle physics and the next it is helping detect faults in carpets.
As well as doing pure research, EPCC has carried out industrial technology transfer projects with over 400 companies, to develop new products and services, “transform their businesses” and improve productivity. Clients include high-tech giants such as Rolls-Royce, British Aerospace and AEA Technology, plus Scottish SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises) such as Kwik-Fit, Arran Aromatics, Red Lemon Studios and Golden Crumb – a Fife-based firm which makes a range of coated appetisers for the catering sector and asked EPCC to “assess the feasibility of using a machine vision system for grading mushrooms.”
Speaking at the EPCC's 20th-anniversary celebrations, commercial director Mark Parsons made light of the more unusual projects the organisation has handled, but also drew attention to the “hidden demand” for high-performance computing (HPC) that exists in every business sector – whether they're aware of its potential or not. “Many companies don't know they should be spending money on HPC,” he said. And to prove this, the EPCC recently launched what it calls the HPC Adopters Programme, designed for Scottish companies “with little or no experience of HPC,” with support from Scottish Enterprise.
The pilot project has initially provided help to three firms. Its chief aims are to solve specific challenges and demonstrate the impact an HPC solution can have on a company's business, and in the process encourage similar companies to consider using HPC in their operations. This latest initiative is part of the EPCC Industry Hub, which offers high-level services to companies right across the spectrum of business, including access to the centre's computing facilities on a pay-per-use basis as well as a wide range of consulting services tailored to industry needs. Most of the work involves modelling and simulation, to help design, develop and test new products and services for sectors such as finance, retail, manufacturing and energy, including international names such as Shell, BT and Sun Microsystems, plus other leading organisations such as the UK Met Office.
“The reason we work with industry,” Parsons continued, “is that our role goes beyond science, to transform businesses and stimulate economic growth.”
This may seem a long way from the early 1980s, when a small group of physics researchers in Edinburgh first dreamed of having a supercomputer to help them solve the problems of cosmology, but right from the start, the EPCC pioneers recognised the need to work with industry as well as conduct pure research – and the centre continues to balance its practical and theoretical projects today, with a “win-win-win” strategy of working with academia, industrial end-users and computer manufacturers for mutual benefit.