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View from Brussels: EU supercomputers start to boot up

An EU-funded supercomputer, which will be one of the top 100 most powerful in the world, was fired up last week in Bulgaria, in the latest example of Brussels adding to its computing arsenal. More, even more powerful, machines will come online soon.

‘Discoverer’—a world-class peta-scale supercomputer capable of executing 4.5 billion operations every second—was inaugurated by EU and Bulgarian government officials in the Eastern European country’s capital city, Sofia.

Made possible thanks to funding worth more than €11 million from the EU and the Bulgarian state, Discoverer is designed to be part of a continent-wide supercomputer network that can be used to accelerate research across a variety of sectors.

“Bulgaria can foster research and be better integrated in pan-European innovation ecosystems. It will stimulate highly data-intensive research in such areas as medicine, industry or security,” said Mariya Gabriel, the EU commissioner in charge of research and innovation policies.

The European High Performance Computing Joint Undertaking – the EU initiative behind the project – lists the discovery of new drugs, better understanding of molecular interactions and climate or seismic simulations among the potential applications of the supercomputer.

Peter Statev, chair of the supervisory board that will manage Discoverer, added that “the ambition is to create conditions for the use of Discoverer not only for scientific research, but to create a platform for its use by business as a service (HPCaS). In today’s world, data is an asset of the highest value.”

Last week’s inauguration means that the EU supercomputer division now has three peta-scale operations online. Vega in Slovenia was the first in April and MeluXina in Luxembourg the second in June. Two more are in development.

Bulgaria’s Discoverer is by far the most powerful computer in Eastern Europe but will soon be dwarfed by three ‘pre-exascale’ computers that are due to be booted up soon in Finland, Italy and Spain.

Pre-exascale supercomputers are seen as a stepping stone to what is considered the “next frontier of computing”, an exascale computer. Those machines will be capable of a trillion operations every second.

Finland’s LUMI supercomputer will be capable of around 375 billion – 375 petaflops – and could be capable of 500 billion when fully operational, around halfway towards the exascale mark.

LUMI will be a rather sustainable project when eventually launched, perhaps later this year or in early 2022, as it will be predominantly powered by green hydropower energy.

The waste heat its vast data centre produces will be recycled by the local area’s district heating network, contributing about 20 per cent of the system’s needs.

The Finnish supercomputer will rank among the top 10 most powerful systems in the world, based on the 2021 ranking released in June, making it one of the few European machines in the top echelon.

Most of the supercomputers on the latest list are based in China, Japan and the United States, with just two – located in Germany and Italy – up there with the most powerful.

Once the EU’s network is fully fleshed out, engineers can start to dream about competing in the race for exascale dominance.

Europe will have its work cut out to keep up with the pace but it looks like the Old Continent is finally waking up a bit when it comes to tech and digital advancements.

Whether European researchers will be able to match their counterparts in China and the US when it comes to quantum computing – a still nascent field that could render even exascales obsolete – remains to be seen, though.

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