Design and installation of a data network for supercomputer Hortense

High-performance data processing is of strategic importance to science, industry and society – especially as the amount of data available and the complexity of our world continue to increase. The new supercomputer from Ghent University has 44,000 processors, 100 terabytes of memory, can perform calculations at a rate of 3.3 petaflops per second and is one of the 500 fastest of its kind. The computer is named ‘Hortense’ after the French astronomer and mathematician Nicole-Reine ‘Hortense’ Lepaute (1723-1788) and is part of the Flemish Supercomputer Center (VSC), where it supports scientific research in cancer and genetics. For example, the supercomputer helps unravel viruses, model climates and galaxies, and plasma research.

A supercomputer is more than a very fast or large computer, but works in a completely different way. Parallel processing is usually used instead of serial processing as with a ‘normal’ computer. Instead of separate successive calculations, a supercomputer performs a large number of calculations simultaneously. It is also important to understand that not all supercomputers are exactly alike. The design and architecture of each system must be tailored to specific applications.

Run millions of processes in parallel

One of the strengths of a supercomputer is that it can run millions of processes in parallel. This requires high bandwidth and low latency networks to connect a massive number of nodes and processors without downtime. The required computing power, transmission speeds, signal quality and reliability can only be provided by using powerful processors and network cables of the highest possible quality. 2,000 ‘high density’ copper compounds and 5,000 fiber compounds were installed in a relatively short time. VSC approached the network provider NTT and system integrator / R&M partner NetConnect to realize this. Supercomputers can be huge in size and the system architecture can be extremely complex, which can greatly increase the overall length of the cables. By optimizing the physical layout, the total cable length can be significantly reduced. A smart network topology can ensure that fewer connections and cables are required and that communication between all components of the network is as direct as possible.

Based on the network’s current topology, our partner Netconnect prepares a design where distances are determined and redundancy is ensured. We work according to international ISO standards, which are identical in approach to traditional networks. Only the end result is always unique. Due to Netconnect’s knowledge and experience with NTT, this project was not specifically approached differently. We have previously tackled other complex and large projects with a good forecast that ensures timely availability and where we respond flexibly to last-minute changes.

During this project we learned that both prior cabling and classical termination of the connections have advantages and disadvantages. These are mainly complementary and enable flexible and timely implementation. So this was a one-on-one story.

Structural growth

For years, R&M has experienced a gradual, structural growth in market shares in Belux. Projects like ‘Hortense’ prove that our approach works with well-educated and strong partners, with a focus on relieving our customer. Of course, we have been proud to serve the University of Ghent as a customer for many years, and with this application even the little bit extra proud! It was especially nice to learn that VCS with Hortense during the pandemic makes an important contribution to the development of vaccines and medicines against new diseases. We now better understand why this could happen so quickly.

By: Jean Paul Rooseleer, Regional Manager Belgium / Luxembourg R&M

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