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NSF funds most powerful academic supercomputer

Everything’s bigger in Texas, including the computers.

Plans for the nation's most powerful university-based high-performance computer are coming together as the National Science Foundation announced a $60 million award to fund the acquisition and deployment of the Frontera supercomputer.

The University of Texas at Austin's Texas Advanced Computing Center will construct the machine, which will be made up of a Dell EMC computing system and Intel processors. Data Direct Networks will contribute the primary storage system, and Mellanox will provide the high-performance interconnect for the machine. NVIDIA, GRC (Green Revolution Cooling) and the cloud providers Amazon, Google and Microsoft will also have roles in the project, TACC officials said.

Frontera will take about a year to build, according to Linda McBrearty, an NSF spokesperson for the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering.

A central processing unit will result in the new system having “more than five times greater capacity than the previous leadership-class NSF-funded computing system.” And its graphics processing unit will help with research using deep learning techniques, NSF said in a press statement.

Frontera will be used across scientific fields, including research into the structure of the universe, environmental modeling and hurricane forecasting, NSF explained.

“The project is investigating a number of technologies, including access to novel technologies provided by commercial cloud providers, to support deep learning and AI research,” McBrearty said in an email. ““[Frontera] will target a very broad class of applications, including data analytics and machine learning."

Eighty percent of the system will be dedicated  for NSF-approved research. The remaining 20 percent will “support education,  broadening participation, and training activities, as well as support for industry outreach, response to emerging opportunities and natural disasters,” McBrearty explained.

"Supercomputers -- like telescopes for astronomy or particle accelerators for physics -- are essential research instruments that are needed to answer questions that can't be explored in the lab or in the field," TACC Executive Director Dan Stanzione said.

TACC is already home to the world’s 15th most powerful supercomputer, Stampede2, which went online last year and was also funded by NSF.

Frontera will come online in the summer of 2019 and run for five years. In addition to serving as a resource for the nation's scientists and engineers, the award will support efforts to develop an even larger future leadership-class system, 10 times as fast as Frontera, to potentially be deployed as Phase 2 of the project.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at mleonard@gcn.com or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

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