Stampede in Africa

In retirement, TACC supercomputers aid HPC in Africa


The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be among the first scientific instruments requiring exascale computing. And TACC supercomputers are playing a role in preparing researchers to use it.

The SKA — whose early science observations are expected to start in 2020 — will be the world's largest radio telescope, 50 times more sensitive than any other, with thousands of small dishes that combined total one square kilometer spread out mainly over South Africa, with some in Australia.

CHPC team unloading the first racks of Stampede1 to arrive in Africa.

Processing the daily data, estimated at an exabyte, will require exascale supercomputers. But that's not all.

"There is going to be a huge demand for high performance computing expertise in South Africa through projects like the Square Kilometre Array," said Happy Sithole, director for the Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC) in South Africa and a champion of supercomputing in Africa.

In 2013, the CHPC received 20 racks of the decommissioned Ranger supercomputer from TACC, which the CHPC distributed to Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zambia.

"The main purpose for this was to start assisting these institutions to teach some aspects of high performance computing, such as introduction to Linux, parallel processing, those types of high performance computing courses, which in the past some of those institutions did not have," Sithole said.

In 2017, several racks of the decommissioned Stampede1 supercomputer were shipped to CHPC. Other racks went to universities in The University of Texas System, and some racks went to the Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia in Portugal.

Sithole takes stewardship of Ranger and Stampede1 seriously. "It is the responsibility of South Africa to make sure that, when we roll out the SKA, there are sufficient skills on high performance computing that can be utilized on the Square Kilometre Array."

What's more, African researchers will use their advanced computing knowledge to reach beyond just the starry African skies.

Sithole added, "It doesn't just stop at the SKA, as the processing capabilities and expertise that will be generated by the SKA can be used for other domains, such as health, energy, mineral processing, and climate modeling."

The partnerships TACC forged in Africa earned it a 2018 Readers' Choice Award from HPCwire in its Workforce Diversity Leadership category. TACC, Cambridge University, CHPC, Dell, and the Department of Science & Technology (South Africa) were recognized in the award for their efforts with the HPC Ecosystems Project.

"The HPC Ecosystems Project is an initiative of the CHPC and is responsible for the distribution and re-deployment of decommissioned HPC hardware as mid-tier systems to research institutions both locally within South Africa and regionally across Africa," said Bryan Johnston, senior HPC technologist in the Advanced Computer Engineering Lab at CHPC and also the project lead for HPC Ecosystems.

HPC Ecosystems focuses on HPC adoption and skills development to prepare for projects such as the Square Kilometre Array. "TACC continues to provide invaluable assistance through ongoing collaboration, a regular pipeline of HPC resources for re-purposed deployment in Africa, and continuing opportunities for the development of human capital," Johnston said.