View from Brussels: JUPITER ascending

Image credit: Jülich Supercomputing Centre

The European Union has announced that five new supercomputers will be installed over the course of the next few years, with Germany set to play host to the most powerful of the fleet. It is the latest step in the EU’s quest to be a computing powerhouse.

Brussels continues to try and up its tech game so that it can compete with Asia and the United States, whether that be through big investments in quantum computing research or sweet tax perks aimed at luring big microchip producers to Europe.

This week, the EU’s high-performance computing division announced that sites have been chosen for the next generation of supercomputers. The jewel in the crown will be an exascale-level device known as JUPITER, which will be built at the Jülich Supercomputing Centre in north-west Germany.

Once up and running in 2023, JUPITER will be capable of performing more than 1 quintillion arithmetic calculations every second, which will place it third in the global ranking, ahead of LUMI, a pre-exascale unit in Finland that is currently Europe’s most powerful.

According to official data for June 2022, Japan’s ‘Fugaku’ and the United States’ IBM-built ‘Summit’ systems are the top two most powerful supercomputers. ‘Frontier’, the world’s first exascale unit, now probably occupies the top spot but not enough data has been collected yet.

China too has reportedly booted up two supercomputers that might rank in the top three most powerful but has unsurprisingly yet to disclose its data, out of fear of giving away trade secrets to its rivals.

Japan’s government is struggling to match the financial clout of its rivals and instead of building more supercomputers that could top the power lists, will aim for computing independence from other countries, according to one leading academic.

"In economic security, Japan is not aiming to be the top [in terms of calculation speeds]," Professor Kazuto Suzuki of the University of Tokyo told Nikkei Asia. "It is more important to build a system that can utilise supercomputers without relying on other countries."

At a cost of half a billion euros, the EU’s JUPITER is not cheap. Half the costs will be met by the EU while the German government will foot the rest of the bill. Still, this pales in comparison with the US supercomputer budget, which is around $5 billion.

The EU is not putting all its eggs in one basket: four other supercomputers will be built in the coming years in Greece, Hungary, Ireland and Poland. Those systems will be less powerful and Brussels will only pay for about one-third of the costs.

It does spread know-how and tech knowledge across the Union though.

“These five new supercomputers will support us in the development of high-precision models. This will help us tackle societal challenges and facilitate advanced research in the fields of climate change, cosmology, engineering, materials science and more,” said Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s digital chief.

On Thursday, the EU also announced that another supercomputer will be located in Barcelona and will be up and running also in 2023. 'MareNostrum5' will be dedicated solely to medical research and cost around €150 million to build.

These efforts will likely not be enough to displace the US or China from the top ranked places but the EU, like Japan, is aiming more for independence and a network of computing that can be targeted against the big problems of the day.

Putting in place systems that could then hopefully be integrated with the next breakthroughs such as quantum computing is also part of the EU's logic.

It's also hoped that JUPITER, like its Finnish forerunner LUMI, will be one of the greenest supercomputers in the world, by cranking up its efficiency and using the heat generated by its operations in an “intelligent” way, perhaps by linking it to a district heating network.

As data centres become ever more ubiquitous and the issue of energy efficiency becomes ever more important, JUPITER and it super-friends may show the tech sector how to clean up its act. After all, 1 per cent of global electricity is used in data centres and their number is growing.

Linking waste heat to district heating systems is one smart option; another is investing in power-purchase-agreements (PPAs), which incentivise the construction of clean energy facilities by providing security of demand to the power provider.

It is far easier for an energy company to make the financial outlay needed to build a solar power plant or wind farm if those green electrons are already spoken for before a PV panel or turbine blade is even put on site.

JUPITER is likely to need 15MW of power to feed its high-performance CPUs. Big data centres often have similar or even greater power demands, so if its German technicians can figure out a way to do it a green way, there might be more than computational benefits on the horizon.


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