Alongside theory and experiment, simulation has become a third pillar of modern science. But simulating everything from the effects of climate change to astrophysics takes some serious computing power. An EU-funded project is helping to put unprecedented supercomputing resources at scientists' fingertips.

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Established in May 2010 as a non-profit association, the Partnership for Advanced Computing (PRACE) is today one of the world's leading providers of High Performance Computing (HPC) to the scientific community. By pooling national investments in several European countries, the partnership is providing researchers across Europe with internet-based access to computing resources for a wide range of applications in almost any scientific field. Its roll-out is being supported by the ‘PRACE first implementation project’ PRACE-1IP, backed by EUR 20 million in funding from the European Commission, just one of the several implementation phases planned for the coming years.

'Simulation is used in almost any discipline to try to tackle many of the big challenges facing science or society,' explains Dr. Thomas Eickermann at the Juelich Supercomputing Centre in Germany. 'We need HPC systems to model weather patterns and climate change, to study diseases and drug effects, to design new materials, in astronomy and even to model new aircraft designs... the list is almost endless.'

Dr. Eickermann is managing PRACE-1IP in which partners from 21 European countries are working to improve access for researchers to the supercomputing resources available through PRACE.

A key part of their work is focused on developing technologies and techniques to help researchers run applications on the PRACE HPC machines. This includes porting - adapting applications so they can be used in a computing environment different from the one for which they were originally designed - and petascaling - optimising applications to run on the extremely large number of processors of HPC machines.

'Though PRACE is a big step forward in making supercomputing resources available to a wide segment of the European scientific community, inevitably there is still more demand from researchers for HPC resources than there are HPC resources available,' Dr. Eickermann says. 'Therefore the projects that get to use the resources have to be carefully chosen and we have to ensure that they use those resources as efficiently as possible.'

Within PRACE, who gets to use the HPC resources is determined by a peer-review process; fellow scientists and researchers select the most promising projects following a twice-yearly call for proposals. Once selected, the work of the PRACE-1IP project team helps ensure the researchers get the most out of the resources available.

In that regard, the PRACE-1IP project and a follow-up initiative, PRACE-2IP, are setting up six training centres across Europe to educate researchers in HPC systems in a multi-year program that covers everything from programming parallel computing systems and scaling applications to programming accelerators such as ‘General purpose graphics processing units’ (GP-GPUs).

The PRACE Advanced Training Centres (PATCs) will be hosted by the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre in Spain, CINECA-Consorzio Interuniversitario in Italy, CSC-IT Centre for Science in Finland, EPCC at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, the Gauss Centre for Supercomputing in Germany, and Maison de la Simulation in France. Researchers interested in attending courses can obtain information from the PRACE website ( and from the training centre host sites.

'Contemporary HPC systems offer unprecedented computing power and their architectures are constantly evolving. The ongoing challenge has always been to "up-skill" scientists and programmers so as to maximise efficiency and research output on such systems,' explains Dr. Simon Wong, leader of the training work package in PRACE-2IP (the second implementation phase project, currently ongoing) and the head of Education and Training at ICHEC in Ireland.

Another key element of the project is keeping abreast of the latest developments and technologies in the HPC world and continually upgrading hardware and software at the partner supercomputing sites.

Currently, PRACE has installed three so-called Tier-0 systems with three more to follow in 2012 at sites in Germany, Spain, France and Italy which are offering a major part of their resources to pan-European research. It also has numerous so-called Tier-1 sites that are mostly dedicated to national or regional research but in addition dedicate some resources to the partnership.

Their computing power is measured in petaflops - equivalent to a quadrillion calculations known as floating point operations per second (flops). Each Tier-0 system in PRACE currently provides at least 1 petaflops of computing power, though that is expected to be increased to the exaflops level - a quintillion calculations per second - over the coming years. By comparison, the human brain is thought by some researchers to be able to process 10 quadrillion calculations per second (10 petaflops).

'So far the PRACE infrastructure has been used by 36 projects for more than one billion computing core hours,' Dr. Eickermann says.

One recently launched project on the PRACE system is also the biggest yet. Called 'Joint weather and climate high-resolution global modelling: future weathers and their risks' and led by the National Centre for Atmospheric Science in the United Kingdom, the project aims to produce high-resolution, realistic simulations of climatic conditions and weather patterns. The goal is to increase the fidelity of global climate simulations and improve understanding of weather and climate risk with a view to offering much more reliable projections of climate change. It will use 144 million core computing hours on HERMIT, the latest Tier-0 system installed at the GCS Partner in Stuttgart.

Other new projects will simulate blood flow in the human body, look at the effects of irradiation on nanostructures, study the gravitational effects of black holes in space and help better understand the solar chromosphere, among many other applications.

'Access to supercomputing resources is an increasingly essential element to modern science and should help contribute to major breakthroughs in many fields,' Dr. Eickermann notes.

Prior to PRACE, supercomputing resources were much more fragmented in Europe, with accessibility restricted by country or organisation. Now it is the European scientific community that decides which are the most promising projects to use precious computing hours - a merit-based approach that should help maintain or extend European science's competitive edge in many fields.

'In the United States, supercomputing resources are fragmented between different agencies and bodies, and in Asia they are fragmented between countries. PRACE is therefore offering major advantages to European research,' says Dr. Eickermann.

PRACE-1IP received funding under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

    Additional Information
  • Information source: Dr. Thomas Eickermann, Juelich Supercomputing Centre, Germany
  • Date: 2012-03-22
  • Offer ID: 8278
  • (1) Grand Equipement National de Calcul Intensif