An introduction to the supercomputer at the heart of the HECToR Facility. How big is it? What can it do? How does it work?

What is HECToR and why is it special?

HECToR is the UK's largest, fastest and most powerful supercomputer. It is capable of over 800 million million calculations a second - that's over 114,000 calculations a second for every man, woman and child on Earth. HECToR occupies an area of two tennis courts and has a memory of 90 Terabytes - equivalent to over 180,000 iPhone's. It also has one Petabyte of disk space for storing data. If your iPhone had that much space it could hold 200 million tracks, and if you started listening to each one of them in 2012, you would still be listening in 3153!

HECToR phase 3 uses the latest "Bulldozer" multicore processor architecture from AMD which theoretically allows twice the performance over the old architecture used in phase 2b. Learning to exploit these new architectures will place the UK at the forefront of scientific software development.

HECToR is supplied by Cray Inc., funded by UK Research Councils, and operated by EPCC, STFC Daresbury and NAG Ltd.

More technical details on the HECToR hardware…

More information on the HECToR Partners…

What is HECToR used for?

HECToR allows researchers to tackle today's biggest scientific and engineering challenges. Activities that rely on modern high end computing tools and techniques include: forecasting climate change, designing new life-saving drugs, constructing safer aircrafts, predicting natural disasters, and understanding how complex biological systems work and develop.

Case studies that illustrate some of the work that is undertaken using HECToR…

Supercomputers are rare and expensive. Can't researchers use desktop PCs instead?

Supercomputers are indispensable to modern research. We can no longer rely exclusively on theory and experiment to move science forward because most of today's scientific and technological challenges are too big, or too small, too complex or simply impossible to experiment on. High end computing tools and techniques - like parallel computing, simulation and visualisation - have to be applied. Even the best modern desktop PCs are no match for a supercomputer… Calculations that would take months to complete on a standard PC can be accomplished in minutes on HECToR.

What is high end computing?

High end computing is the use of advanced computing resources to solve large-scale problems. It can involve specialised programming techniques - such as parallel computing - or novel computing architectures such as vector processors. Supporting such techniques and architectures on high end computing machines often requires specialist components and housing.

Parallel computing speeds up calculations by performing multiple operations simultaneously rather than one at a time (as is the norm in serial computing). There are different types of parallel computing and HECToR supports them all; different applications may be better suited to different parallel computing models.

Find out more on the Wikipedia parallel computing page…

Vector processors are a type of computer processor specifically designed to perform multiple elements of a calculation simultaneously. As such, they can be thought of as a hardware implementation of the parallel computing concept.

Find out more on the Wikipedia vector processors page…