Fast, green IBM machine for medical research

Melbourne's medical research supercomputing facility has moved into stage two of its program to host the fastest supercomputer in the southern hemisphere dedicated to life science research with the purchase of an IBM Blue Gene/Q, which has 836 teraflops of processing power.

The Blue Gene/Q, which will be housed at the Victorian Life Sciences Computation Initiative (VLSCI), hosted by the University of Melbourne, will be used in the VLSCI's high-throughput genomics, computational imaging and proteomics and integrative biology research themes.

The VLSCI's Peak Computing Facility (PCF) is currently at stage one, operating at 46 teraflops. The facility also hosts 'Bruce', an SGI Altix x86, 'Merri', an IBM iDataplex x86 and 'Tambo', an IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer.

The acquisition of the Blue Gene/Q is the second stage of an agreement between IBM and the University of Melbourne to provide state of the art computational capacity for life sciences research within the VLSCI, in conjunction with the IBM Research Collaboratory for Life Sciences–Melbourne.

The Victorian government announced the $100 million VLSCI in 2008, part of a pet project by former premier John Brumby to increase resources for life sciences and biotechnology research in the state.

Expected to be operational by June 2012, the IBM supercomputer will provide 836 teraflops of processing power – the equivalent computing power of more than 20,000 desktop computers – making it one of the fastest supercomputers in Australia, based on the Top 500 list, and the fastest supercomputer dedicated to life sciences research in the southern hemisphere.

The Blue Gene/Q is also the world's most energy-efficient supercomputer, according to the Green 500 list of November 2011.

Jim McCluskey, deputy vice-chancellor for research at the University of Melbourne, said the machine’s enormous capacity would assist life sciences researchers to fast-track solutions to some of the most debilitating health conditions.

“Through this supercomputer, scientists will be able to advance their work in finding cures and developing improved treatments for cancer, epilepsy and other devastating diseases affecting the lives of Australians and people worldwide,” Professor McCluskey said.

“This is an extraordinary asset to the life scientists of Victoria and Australia.”

Scientists from the VLSCI and IBM Research are currently working on projects such as medical imaging, in which high performance computers are used to analyse images from devices such as MRI, PET and Melbourne's synchrotron.

They are also working on clinical genomics, the identification of combinations of genes implicated in disease and the ability to predict susceptibility to disease and treatment outcome from an individual's genome and medical history.

In structural and systems biology, they are looking at the structure, shape and dynamics of biological macromolecules, fundamental to pharmaceutical discovery, as well as understanding and modelling the dynamic behaviour of complex systems such as genes, proteins, cells, tissues and organs.

VLSCI director Peter Taylor said the new high performance computer was designed specifically for large-scale and highly complex scientific problems.

“This immense computing power will add tremendous value to the huge data sets currently generated by the Victorian biotechnology hub,” Professor Taylor said.

Glenn Wightwick, director of IBM Research and Development in Australia, said completing computationally intensive projects was critical in understanding human disease and translating that knowledge into improved medical care.

“IBM’s historic role in developing the supercomputers that provide the power behind critical applications in every industry, including life sciences, has uniquely positioned us to provide reliable supercomputing at the highest level.”

Posted in Australian eHealth

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