Brazil's supercomputer: hero, academic petaflop, or both?

The Santos Dumont HPC is going to drill down into data and process it into gold, Brazil hopes

Since we last visited Brazil, to examine how it could make use of the inward investment of technology, its economy has disappointed.

Brazil was the B in the BRIC: four emerging economic powerhouses that were going to change the world (the others being Russia, India and China).  As The Times of London commented recently, “right now it’s hard to know if it’s the B, the R or the C whose reputation is souring quickest”.

IDG Connect reported in 2013 that Brazil was aiming to join the world’s premier league of economies, upping its game by shedding its heavy reliance on commodities and escaping the yo-yo cycle of boom and bust.

Now, having been laid low by the commodities crunch while confidence in oil and gas (one of its tickets out of commodity drudgery) was massively undermined by the Petrobras corruption scandal, Latin America’s biggest economy is in the grips of a recession.

While it grew by 2.2% a year on average during President Dilma Rousseff’s first term in office, last year gross domestic product flatlined and even contracted at times. Brazil’s high interest rates (13%) make borrowing difficult and expensive for industry and the country’s debt rating was downgraded to junk status by financial researcher Standard & Poor.

Nevertheless, it’s still the seventh largest economy in the world and has healthy oil and gas industries, competitive aircraft and automotive manufacturing sectors and it is a major exporter of electronics and textiles.

Brazil's most esteemed technological hubs are the Oswaldo Cruz Institute, the Butantan Institute, the Air Force's Aerospace Technical Center, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation and the INPE (Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research) which has the most advanced space program in Latin America.

These are all research based industries where Big Data is meant to deliver scientific breakthroughs. After all, Norway was once the poorest nation in Europe, surviving on copper mining and fish, until modern computing techniques helped it discover oil. Now it’s rated by Forbes magazine as the fourth richest nation in the world.

So Atos’s delivery of a Bull high-performance computer (HPC) in Petrópolis, Brazil’s beautiful ‘Imperial City’ about 70km from Rio could be the start of something exciting. This arms Brazil with its first petascale number cruncher and Big Data processor for open use by Brazil’s academic community. It was brought about by a partnership with the National Scientific Computing Laboratory (LNCC) and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI).

The Santos Dumont supercomputer places Brazil among the world’s leading group of nations that have HPC capacities. Designed by Bull, this High-Performance Computing (HPC) system is the biggest supercomputer in Latin America. It can carry out 1.1 quadrillion (million billion) operations a second, which should help it support advances in meteorology, molecular dynamics and computational fluid dynamics.

The supercomputer was delivered on July 4th, 2015. Four special trucks were needed to transport the supercomputer and modular containers to house all its chapter. The computer can scale upwards by increments, when demand rises and the government can be expected to expand its budget accordingly.

But it has taken a long time to be delivered.

IDG Connect spoke to Jean-Marc Denis, international business development director for extreme computing and Big Data at Atos, who has spent five years in Rio making this installation come to fruition.

We asked him how, exactly, this beast will galvanise Brazil’s energy, oil, chemistry, physics, the environment, meteorology, astronomy, life sciences and nanotechnology industries.

A super computer gives research departments the option for rapid simulations. Their thousands of microprocessor ‘cores’ can make trillions of calculations, with petabytes of storage and memory available to support hypothetical models with constant testing and retesting.

This can give the academics attached to Brazilian industry a fast track to unraveling all kinds of Big Science mysteries from protein folding to petro-chemicals, the origins of the universe to oil and gas explorations.

The most immediate beneficiary of the technology will be the aforementioned oil and gas company Petrobras, whose academic collaboration partners are to conduct molecular dynamics calculations. These will help them work out ways to retrieve fossil fuels from oilfields whose dense geological layers have so far defined extraction. Expansion of the use of the supercomputer has to be cost justified and this is the one project in which payback will be of most immediate impact, according to Denis.

“Before anyone can do anything with this resource, they have to prove that their project can scale,” adds Denis. “They need to demonstrate exactly why they need 20,000 cores for a simulation.”

All scientists and research teams across Brazil’s entire academic community will potentially have access to the supercomputing resources, so competition could be intense. The most distant university with a right to access to the facility – if it can make its case – is 8,000 kilometres away. Could this not lead to some academic research being sidetracked by the more pushy, commercially minded faculties?

“In the academic world they are used to fighting for resources within their own campus, so they will all know how to make their case,” says Denis.

Atos will be managing the IT resources from a software and hardware support perspective, but it will be the National Scientific Computing Laboratory (LNCC) that will be making the difficult decisions about divvying up the expensive super computer resources.

“We are experienced at running these so we have some tips we can pass on about decision making and fairness,” says Denis. “Ultimately the decisions are entirely down to them.”

If it begins to pay off, will there be enough cores to go round? Once word gets around, the processing power of this supercomputer will be Brazil’s most precious commodity ever and the administrators will have to fight off the various faculties with a stick. Is it scalable even beyond today’s capabilities?

Upgrading the facilities is a question of adding another container full of processing power and storage and memory. The hard part is getting the funding, which was downgraded before the project even got under way, as the Brazilian economy’s plunge into recession necessitated some austerity measures.

Getting the extra funding depends on one question: how successfully the supercomputer can prove its worth. Nobody knows the answer to that one. Not even Santos Dumont.