Supercomputing upgrade at Atomic Weapons Establishment

The Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) is to receive an upgrade to its high performance supercomputing system to further boost its ability to undertake research contributing to the development of new nuclear weapons.

An existing supercomputer cluster at the site, known as 'Spruce', is to be upgraded to allow calculations to be performed at a faster processing speed, enabling the computers to undertake more complex modelling projects at a higher resolution and process an increased workload.

The upgrade to the Spruce system, known as Project Rosewood, consists of installation of two
SGI ICE XA supercomputers that will be able to undertake calculations at petaflop speeds (trillions of calculations per second).

The existing Spruce system consists of two SGI ICE X computers , installed in early 2014, with a theoretical peak power of 1.8 petaflops.  The upgrade is expected to bring the Spruce's computing capacity to over 2.0 petaflops, and will be operational by the end of 2015.

High performance computing is at the heart of AWE's warhead research programme, using experimental data and sophisticated modelling techniques to predict how warhead components will behave during a nuclear explosion – an essential step in the design of new warheads. AWE has “some of the most advanced and powerful supercomputing facilities in the world”, according to the Establishment's website.

AWE's supercomputing capacity has been built up over more than a decade and has seen an explosive increase in computing power at the Establishment.  A major step forward was taken in 2001 when AWE purchased an IBM SP Power 3 computer known as 'Blue Oak', and in 2006 two Cray XT3 computers were installed, adding more than twenty times the computational power of Blue Oak to AWE's capability.

In 2010 AWE installed three Bullx B510 systems, one of which, 'Blackthorn', was said to be the third largest in the UK when it began operating.  Blackthorn was designed to process very large calculations as part of a single project which might take days or even weeks to complete, while the other two Bullx computers, comprising the 'Willow' complex, were intended to undertake smaller concurrent calculations.

AWE's next supercomputing milestone was passed in November 2012 when AWE selected three SGI ICE X computers which began operating in early 2014, two of which comprise the 'Spruce' cluster.  Although now barely 18 months old, Spruce will now receive an upgrade to take advantage of the latest developments in computing technology.

AWE's increase in supercomputer capacity, in parallel with a rapidly growing expansion in computer performance, has allowed the establishment to dramatically cut the time it takes to perform complex computations, allowing a greater volume of modelling work to be undertaken at a reduced cost.

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