Zimbabwe’s first supercomputer

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It’s not quite time yet to be doing “the year in review” articles, but here’s one thing that flew below my radar: Zimbabwe officially launched a 36-teraflop supercomputer in February 2015.

The supercomputer, housed at the University of Zimbabwe’s Zimbabwe Centre for High Performance Computing (Zim-CHPC), was installed by Inspur Group of China  funded by a $5,4 million loan courtesy of the Chinese government. Zimbabwe became the third (or fifth – depending on who you ask) African country to host a supercomputer, and number 2 on the continent in terms of raw computing performance.

Wikipedia describes a supercomputer as “a computer with a high-level computational capacity compared to a general-purpose computer”. The speed of a supercomputer is measured in FLoating-point Operations Per Second (FLOPS or flops), and the designation of ’36 teraflops’ means at its peak speed, the supercomputer can execute 36 trillion floating point operations.

For a rough benchmark of how that stacks up against the best in the world: the current number 1 supercomputer (China’s Tianhe-2) clocks in at 33,867 petaflops (33 867 quadrillion FLOPS, or 33 867 teraflops – though I probably don’t need to convert between trillions and quadrillions for our Zimbabwean readers). Supercomputer number 500 runs at less impressive 164 teraflops. More on the Tianhe-2: it has just over 3,1 million Intel Xeon processor cores and has a power draw of 17,8 Megawatts – which is more than half of what ZESA is currently producing at its Harare power station (30 Megawatts).

Supercomputers excel at solving compute-heavy research problems such as modelling or simulation of anything from weather, biochemical processes, to nuclear explosions. The US government has banned the export of supercomputers or supercomputer components to countries suspected of doing nuclear research on supercomputers (including China). A possible unintended side-effect of the US export ban to China is the kick-starting of China’s supercomputing industry. Additionally, enforcing the ban is challenging in practice because (some) supercomputers are mostly off-the-shelf server components with accelerators and high-performance network gear, so much so that the Zim-CHPC cluster could fit on one rack (disclaimer: I haven’t seen it).

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The UZ has stated that it has plans to partner with academia, research and the private sector on applications across varying fields, with explicit shout-outs to life-sciences and mineral explorations. My hope is that the UZ introduces a programme (or at least a course for pre-existing programmes) that teaches High Performance Computing.

Article image courtesy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. CC BY 2.0



28 Comments

  1. Dadaya Nkoloma says:

    I need to tour UZ

  2. SoTypME says:

    I’m not a techie so excuse this question if this sounds dumb but: what exactly is it going to be used for?

    1. [email protected] says:

      He already said what they are used for.

      The only thing that the author did not bother to check was who Inspur is and that they put together the Tianhe

      To expand on it:

      Supercomputers are used for
      – modeling and simulating scientific data in real time or over a very short period of time relative to what used to take many times longer (infections, pathogenic behavior,molecular, atomic & nuclear interactions,astronomical interactions & events )
      – predicting weather(simulations & modelling based on high volumes of historical data) – the Met Department has something of what used to be one of the best computing powerin the country
      – visualisation & animating of any of that data especially in 3D.
      – anything that requires heavy mathematical calculations, volumes of data and requires immediate or near-immediate results(relatively). What would take
      *hours will now take seconds/nanoseconds/minutes depending on scenarios
      Same with what would’ve taken days,weeks,months…etc. All used to cost money and time to process and access. Sometimes a researcher would have to go outside the country e.g. the UCT HPC centre.

      This is awesome news!

      1. SoTypME says:

        Thanks for the further clarification. I did read over the general explanation in the article of what it will be used for, but I was curious about the exact applications especially locally.
        My first reaction to the article was ‘Yay, we have a supercomputer!’ quickly followed by ‘Umm…wat exactly r we going to use it for…?

    2. Tapiwa Munzwa says:

      According to the UZ Vice Chancellor – planned usage includes mineral exploration & life sciences (bio/biochemistry & related subjects)

  3. macd chip says:

    Our Met Office needs to use this to predict rainfall patterns correctly so that Kariba does not run dry.

    With the current zesa problems, l do not see this being used much. Maybe UZ needs to be put on those special power lines which not affected by power cuts.

    1. TawTsvenz says:

      UZ rarely loses power, even when that happens, they have backup power plans.

      1. macd chip says:

        Thats good news then, UZ just need to find more work to fully utilise this computer

      2. TECHNOKRATTI says:

        but this thing needs to pay its way . The UZ if the economy was firing could make money simulating mathematical models for industry . but the economy is completely bananas so they will just run their generator for nothing

        1. [email protected] says:

          In theory they could by leasing out computer time to other institutions within the region.

          Or leasing out idle time to corporates, private research firms,architects for rendering CAD artefacts, and media that need computer-intensive productions like 3D animations.

          Opportunities are there. The challenge is having the right brains to balance things out and make it sustainable.

  4. Rr says:

    The computer will obnly operate between 2200-0500. Saka it will deccades to solve anything. Dai vakapihwa iri superlaptop kana at least 1 solar panel ne inverter

  5. TECHNOKRATTI says:

    with Zimbabwe’s consistent energy woes i would say that that this computer will be underutilized.

  6. Kungurirai says:

    Kikikiki this is an electricity hungry machine. Cant it be banned like geysers.

    1. Diggle says:

      I forward the motion

  7. Rr says:

    I can imagine all progessors gathered around as the computer as the supercomputer is abt to solve cold fission and then baahh powercut kohihihi generator airlock someone aka tengesa macoupon kuenda kwabusy signal na jah prayzah.
    Very possible in zimbabwe

  8. gtx980ti says:

    Is that single or double precision. Seems ridiculously expensive @ 4.5 million, a hom PC with off th shlf parts can hit about 20 Traflops for about $1000 USD with a powr draw off lss than 1200Watts

    1. gtx980ti says:

      Is that single or double precision. Seems ridiculously expensive @ 4.5 million, a home PC with off the shelf parts can hit about 20 Teraflops for about $1000 USD with a power draw off less than 1200 Watts

    2. TawTsvenz says:

      Most microprocessors today can carry out 4 FLOPs per clock cycle; thus a single-core 2.5 GHz processor has a theoretical performance of 10 billion FLOPS = 10 GFLOPS = 0.01 teraFLOPS. (according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FLOPS ). In practice it is much less. So your statement needs revision.

      1. Tapiwa Munzwa says:

        Graphics cards tend to out-perform microprocessors on parallel processing – the parent commenter’s chosen name is a hint. NVidia’s GTX 9980 TI has a performance of 5.63 Teraflops (single precision) and costs $650. I suppose stuffing four 9980’s into a desktop chassis in an Quad-SLI configuration might be possible, but total throughput is likely less 4 *5.63 Teraflops due to overheads, and the cost is way more than $1000. The Linpack benchmark used to rank supercomputers is double-precision floating point operation – so the desktop computer is much less impressive.

        Another factor is that with that much horsepower, the graphics cards are going to starve for tasks due to the desktop-class northbridge and/or processor being completely saturated way before the cards are running at full capacity. If you upgrade the northbridge and the processor, what you have is no longer a desktop computer, but a supercomputer, and it will cost much more than $1000. Most of the work in making a supercomputer is architecting the system so that there are no bottlenecks: putting the parts together is the easy part.

        1. TawTsvenz says:

          Yes exactly. Assembling the parts to reach near theoretical speeds would be tough for less than USD1000. But definitely 5.4 million dollars is too much for 36 tflops.

  9. Jon Sno says:

    With the spike in bitcoin prices they should use it to mine bitcoin and earn it’s keep 🙂

  10. ipd says:

    I dont know much abt computers bt does UZ hav a generator which can produce 17megawatts, as power back up? I doubt

    1. Tapiwa Munzwa says:

      To be clear, the Zim-CHPC supercomputer consumes far less than 17 megawatts: Tianhe-2 (#1 supercomputer in the world, located in China) is the one that consumes 17 megawatts, and it about 1000-times faster than Zimbabwe’s supercomputer.

  11. Tia says:

    One rack??? get your facts straight!

  12. Llodza says:

    Do we really need a super computer for $5 million when we cannot even make a simple dynamo or needle and have no fibre optic for traffic control?
    Isn’t it akin to importing or installing a centre pivot irrigation system when you don’t even have a deep well?

  13. Tk💯🎮 says:

    but is Zimbabwe going to have another Supercomputer as for the data of the government and ministries

  14. sillyme says:

    My prayers have been answered

  15. Biggens says:

    Zimbabwe has been priviledged enough to own such a thing especially in this era where technology is taking over and hence the need to embrace it.

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