Top of the flops: UAntwerp gets powerful new supercomputer


The two petaflop supercomputer will help meet the challenges of artificial intelligence and advance research into new medical treatments

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Antwerp University has taken delivery of a new supercomputer, which it claims is the most powerful at any university in the Benelux region. The machine is based in the IDLab, a group at the university run by imec, Flanders’ digital technologies research centre.

“Our researchers constantly need a tremendous amount of computing power,” said Steven Latré, professor of computer science at the university. “When training new artificial intelligence systems, they often have to wait several hours to get a result. A good combination of CPUs (central processing units) and GPUs (graphics processing units) is crucial in this regard.”

The measure of a supercomputer is how many floating point operations, or flops, it can perform in a second. A flop might be a calculation, such as an addition or multiplication, or some other distinct digital task.

The university’s present supercomputer, the CalcUA, has a calculating power of 240 teraflops. That’s 240 trillion floating point operations per second.

‘Can barely wrap our heads around it’

Imec’s current supercomputer is a Nvidia DGX-1, which comes in at 960 teraflops. This has been used by its City of Things teams since late 2017 to analyse digital images. For example, the computer has been scrutinising pedestrian behaviour filmed at zebra crossings, in order to make traffic lights safer and more efficient.

The new machine, a Nvidia DGX-2, is significantly more powerful than both these machines, with a computing power of two petaflops, or 2,000 teraflops. “We’re going to make enormous strides in terms of processing power,” Latré said, conceding that the speeds involved are hard to comprehend. “That’s a number we can barely wrap our human heads around.”

The DGX-2 has been purchased through Ghent-based artificial intelligence company Robovision, which will help researchers use the new machine. “It’s the world’s first single server to have a calculation speed of two petaflops,” said Jonathan Berte, the company’s chief executive. “That means its deep-learning processing power outstrips that of 300 conventional computer servers combined.”

Several projects are already lined up to use the new supercomputer, from artificial intelligence to developing new treatments for malaria. “Today, medical staff are still analysing thousands of cells manually,” said Berte, “while intelligent algorithms can do the same work in a fraction of a second.”

Photo: Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang unveils the DGX-2 in early 2018

©Courtesy Nvidia

University of Antwerp

The University of Antwerp is Flanders’ youngest university, but it has quickly made a name for itself in natural and biomedical science research. It is the region’s third-largest university.
Merger - The university was born from the merger of three institutions with roots dating back to 1852.
Ranking - The university placed 13th in the World University Ranking “Top 50 Universities Under 50 years”.
Epidemiology - It was the first university in Flanders to offer a Master’s degree in epidemiology.
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