University deploys largest IBM POWER9 AI cluster in the UK!

Researchers at the University of Birmingham are set to benefit from the largest IBM® POWER9™ Artificial Intelligence (AI) computer cluster in the UK.

The University will integrate a total of 11 IBM POWER9 systems into its existing high-performance computing (HPC) infrastructure, the Birmingham Environment for Academic Research (BEAR).

The system, which is being delivered by IT Services' multi award winning Advanced Research Computing (ARC) team, will deliver unprecedented performance for the ever-increasing AI workloads generated by the University’s researchers, delivering ground-breaking computational vision analysis and helping to solve life sciences challenges, such as improving cancer diagnosis.


“It’s very important to us as a research-led institution that we are at the forefront of data research which means we are always looking at ways to make AI quicker and more accessible for our researchers,” said Simon Thompson, Research Computing Infrastructure Architect. “With the sheer amount of data, the common questions from researchers are how can we analyse it fast enough and how can we make the process even quicker? With our early deployment of the two IBM POWER9 servers we have seen what is possible. By scaling up, we can keep-pace with the escalating demand and offer the computational capacity and capability to attract leading researchers to the University.”

Professor Tim Softley, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Transfer at the University, was instrumental in helping secure funding for the clusters, he said, “Having outstanding facilities is essential to our delivery of research that matters. This investment in new infrastructure and our growing partnership with IBM will benefit all disciplines but is particularly relevant to our  exciting research into artificial intelligence and our partnership with the Alan Turing Institute.”

This significant enhancement to BEAR will mean an even more powerful and versatile computing environment to serve researchers. For example, academics from The Alan Turing Institute looking at early diagnosis of and new therapies for heart disease and cancer, will use AI to run faster diagnostics in the future. In contrast, researchers in the physical sciences are similarly using machine learning and data science approaches to quantify the 4D (3D plus time) microstructures of advanced materials collected at national large synchrotron facilities such as the Diamond Light Source. This research expects to use the large model support provided by IBM PowerAI software to analyse TBs of data being generated daily; currently an almost impossible task.

"This partnership with IBM offers very exciting prospects to boost our research in Data Science for the Life Sciences," said the Director of the Centre for Computational BiologyProfessor Jean-Baptiste Cazier.  "Access to this technology and expertise from IBM will enable us to leverage the best of capabilities in Data Science and deploy to a range of domains from Precision Medicine to Environmental studies. We will boost our ability to integrate ever larger, and complex, information in order to extract the key features, including cryptic association, such as the impact of Gene x Environment interaction in its broadest sense to a diversity of health conditions."

Energy efficiency is also key, and the University has shown its commitment by investing in the reduction of energy consumption. The University boasts the UK’s first purpose built water-cooled research focused data centre meaning that 85% of the heat is recovered directly through the water-cooled systems, delivering impressive energy savings by minimising the cooling overheads. The top end range of IBM POWER9-based AC922 servers includes warm water-cooled nodes, where water is taken directly across the CPUs and GPUs at temperatures up to 35C. A unique installation in the UK, the data centre doesn’t use any air-cooling systems and accommodates the IBM systems running alongside “direct to node” water cooled technology from other vendors.

Thompson concludes: “With OCF as our partner, we have the right guidance, skills and expertise to continually move BEAR forward. It’s not just about having the largest cluster, it’s about providing cutting-edge HPC tools for our researchers from both traditional and non-traditional disciplines, who will be able to process data faster and generate new findings, achieving greater research impact.”

This additional computation resource is funded both through IT Services central budget and also by the CaStLeS budget which supports computational workloads in life sciences across the University.


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