Africa’s biggest supercomputer

15 October 2008

The Department of Science and Technology and multinational technology company IBM launched the Blue Gene for Africa initiative in Cape Town last week, giving the country access to supercomputing power not previously seen on the continent.

The BG4A is hosted by the Centre for High Performance Computing, an initiative of the department, and is managed by the Meraka Institute of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Addressing representatives from the government, academia and the industry, IBM vice-president Mark Dean said that Africa needed to invest in human capital development, infrastructure and increased research and development in order to spur further socio-economic development.

With research infrastructure also being key to development, IBM said its donation of the Blue Gene supercomputer was its contribution towards sparking scientific and socio-economic progress on the continent.

“There is going to be some fascinating work done on this computer. It will not only contribute to the advancement of science in the Africa region but also help grow economies in the region,” a statement by the CSIR quoted Dean as saying last week.

“It is just a tool – the true difference for the region is the people. The tool will enable people to make a difference.”

Fastest on the African continent

The donation of the supercomputer forms part of a US$120-million (about R1.1-billion) investment in sub-Saharan Africa announced by IBM in December 2007, and followed a series of meetings on economic development opportunities convened by IBM that year as part of its Global Innovation Outlook strategy.

This donation has given impetus to the Blue Gene for Africa initiative, which has three interlinking thrusts: infrastructure, promoting collaborative with a major impact on the African continent, and human capital development – building of high-end computing capacity in Africa.

The $2-million (about R18.4-million) Blue Gene/P system is capable of 14-trillion individual calculations per second, and is five times more powerful than the fastest research computer currently on the African continent, the Blue Gene/L in Egypt.

Potential projects which could benefit from this initiative are environmental simulations (water management, climate and atmospheric simulations), plant genomics and agricultural modelling, energy, information analytics and complex systems modelling (such as business systems, risk management, financial models, transportation management and health).

Frontrunners among the flagship projects, which are subject to a formal review process, include the following:

  • A mineral beneficiation project, which will focus first on manganese, and then on other minerals
  • A project on global change impact, with a strong focus on climate, specifically the large-scale impact of climate change in certain regions of the African continent
  • A project on food security and research into the nutritional values of cassava root

An African supercomputer

As the Blue Gene is for the whole continent, Dean invited African higher education and research institutions to take advantage of the fastest research supercomputer in Africa to conduct cutting-edge, socially relevant research.

Potential users who wish to access the high performance computing are encouraged to contact the Centre for High Performance Computing to find the optimal fit for their requirements.

“There is a positive link between the nature of research enabled by the Blue Gene for Africa initiative and the prospect for improving the quality of life of ordinary South Africans and African citizens, particularly poverty alleviation,” said CSIR chief executive Sibusiso Sibisi.

He also confirmed the importance of the Blue Gene for Africa initiative in promoting collaborative research internationally, adding that it also conformed to the CSIR’s aims.

“The initiative underpins the power of partnerships in addressing the challenges that require urgent attention, and which are beyond the power of a single person, institution or country to address,” he said.

SAinfo reporter

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