The UK needs a single unified national roadmap and policy direction around its supercomputing capabilities, according to a new Government report.

A review of the UK’s large-scale computing (LSC) ecosystem from the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and Government Office for Science notes that there is no single team within Government that provides coordination or carries out a wider strategic assessment of the UK’s needs.

“With new opportunities come challenges the UK must address if it is to realize the true potential of LSC and the PM’s ambitions for the UK as a Science Superpower,” said Vallance.

– Microsoft

While the UK has access to ‘leading-edge systems’ such as the Piz Daint system in Switzerland through the European PRACE program and the 200-petaflops Summit system through the US’s DoE INCITE Program, it only has 12 domestic systems in the Top500, representing just 2.4 percent of global installations.

The UK’s most powerful domestic system is located at the Met Office and is the 37th most powerful machine on the Top500 list. The Met Office is currently developing a new 60 petaflops system in partnership with Microsoft and HPE.

The report recommends establishing a team within Government to provide policy leadership of large-scale computing as well as developing a national plan for exascale computing.

“This roadmap should cover the whole UK computing ecosystem, including software, skills, and user needs,” says the review. “This would help to improve resource sharing between organizations and provide a conduit for industry engagement. Finally, this team could advise Government on computing procurement, helping the public sector become a more intelligent customer.”

A long-term roadmap for procurement could provide clarity to the UK computing sector, helping to encourage domestic investment, the review said.

“It is essential that the UK makes long-term, strategic commitments and sets out a clear roadmap up to and beyond the advent of exascale computing capabilities in the UK. If the UK is to deliver an exascale system in the early-2020s a decision will need to be made imminently.”

The policy roadmap should include energy planning to ensure energy-intensive HPC systems’ computing needs are factored into electrical grid planning. While the UK’s National Supercomputing Service, Archer, draws just under 2MW of power when running at full capacity, future systems will require much more energy,

“A single exascale system in the 40MW range would consume roughly 0.1 percent of the UK’s current electricity supply, the equivalent of the domestic consumption of c. 94,000 homes,” notes the review. “Large-scale computing procurements should include life cycle assessments of environmental impact. Government could play an important role in developing templates for these types of assessment, building on the relevant international standards.”

The report also notes the “acute shortage” of HPC professionals in the country, including system architects, data engineers, system operations professionals, and software engineers. It recommends new pathways to develop, attract, and retain talent, including greater job security, salary, and progression opportunities, as well as expanded apprenticeships and professional training programs. There is seemingly little data on the diversity of the large-scale computing workforce, but the review warns it is “substantially less diverse” than the overall UK workforce and this should also be an area of focus.

The review notes that the UK has a strong position in software development and should work to maintain this. It also notes that while moving directly into large-scale semiconductor fabrication would require large-scale investment, the UK is strong in the development and prototyping of 'novel compound semiconductor technologies' and this should be further supported. Investment and support in domestic hardware companies could help ensure greater supply chain diversity and security.

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