In a climate-controlled facility on the 17th floor of the Fusionopolis building, dozens of sleek steel cabinets stand tall in parallel rows. Each one is packed with computing nodes, working in concert through a densely interconnected high-speed network to make a quadrillion calculations per second. In a day, they might reveal the hidden folds of a cellular protein; model the shadows of a city district’s trees; test new algorithms of artificial intelligence (AI); or uncover candidates for next- generation industrial materials.
Collectively, this cluster of highly connected computers forms the ASPIRE 1—Singapore’s first national petascale supercomputer. For Tin Wee Tan, Chief Executive of the National Supercomputing Centre (NSCC) Singapore, the high-performance computing (HPC) capabilities provided by machines like the ASPIRE 1 and its successors are not only the beating heart of cutting-edge research, but a glimpse of the nation’s technological future.
“Just as the power of supercomputers decades ago can now be found in handheld personal devices, supercomputers of today foreshadow what those devices will be capable of a decade or two from now,” said Tan.
Since 2015, NSCC—a national initiative managed by A*STAR—has served as a platform for universities, government agencies and industries looking to harness HPC in their efforts to tackle 21st-century challenges. These range from the geographical impacts of climate change to the management and evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Using our platform, researchers are identifying ways to better predict ‘what if’ scenarios as well as monitor, as close to real-time as possible, the dangers that might impact populations and regions,” said Tan. “Climate scientists, epidemiologists, biochemists, aircraft engineers, urban developers, materials scientists—wherever there is a problem that relies on vast computational power to solve, that’s where NSCC comes in to help.”
TOWARDS SUPERCOMPUTING FOR ALL
Supercomputers, and HPC machines in general, are defined by the sheer magnitude of computational power they provide—often equivalent to thousands of desktop computers. While they allow researchers to carry out data-intensive tasks far beyond the scope of the average consumer product, they are also energy-intensive facilities that require dedicated investment, cooling infrastructure and technical expertise.
The history of HPC in Singapore goes back decades, with the government recognising its strategic value since the 1980s. Faced with growing public and private demand for more powerful computing resources, several universities and organisations with deep roots in HPC—among them, the National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and A*STAR’s Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC)—began investing in their own supercomputing facilities.
However, there are steep costs to obtaining and maintaining supercomputers even in the terascale range (or 1/1000th that of the ASPIRE 1). It became clear that combined efforts and shared resources were needed to bring a top-of-class supercomputer to life; one with enough capacity to cater to Singapore’s strategic goals of developing an innovative, digitally driven nation.
In 2015, with support from A*STAR and the National Research Foundation (NRF) Singapore, a group consisting of IHPC, NUS, NTU and the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) collectively pooled their resources to establish NSCC, a shared facility that would construct and manage the nation’s most powerful HPC resources. A year later, NSCC launched the ASPIRE 1.
NSCC’s goal is to democratise access to cutting-edge supercomputing, opening up its capabilities to the nation’s R&D ecosystem. In other words, it aims to make supercomputing a public utility not unlike water and electricity.
“NSCC has grown from a supercomputing resource identified by its founding key stakeholders into a national research infrastructure that serves the HPC needs of all of Singapore’s scientists across research entities, government agencies, educational institutes and companies,” said Peter Ho, Chairman of NSCC’s steering committee since its inception.
According to Ho, data on the course of research in Singapore shows the demand for HPC will only continue to rise. “This is due to the increasing use of tools like AI, machine learning, big data, advanced visualisation, modelling and simulation across a number of critical areas, such as climate change, biomedical science and healthcare, genetics, advanced manufacturing and robotics, to name a few,” Ho added.
In its early years, NSCC faced challenges such as finding HPC talent to bridge the gaps between foundational research and computing optimisation; building partnerships for ‘hybrid’ supercomputing options for the R&D community; and improving HPC’s carbon footprint. At the time, Singapore had yet to have a national strategic plan for HPC resource development.
“Since 2015, we’ve seeded a whole-of-government HPC Taskforce to gain a firmer sense of the whole country’s future HPC needs, rather than responding on demand,” Ho explained. “We’re also advocating for a National HPC Roadmap that covers not only infrastructure, but also capability building, education and talent development, research enablement and carbon sustainability.”
TOOLS AND EXPERTISE
Today, NSCC’s HPC capacity goes beyond the ASPIRE 1’s original 2016 specifications. With processors growing more powerful by the year, NSCC has since received upgrades in support of key research fields.
These include the Köppen System, a terascale supercomputer designed for climate and environment research through advanced modelling, simulation and weather pattern analysis. Another module, the AI Platform@NSCC, added six deep learning supercomputers to help train larger, more sophisticated neural networks for next-generation AI applications.
In late 2022, NSCC announced an early call for projects on Singapore’s newest flagship supercomputer: the ASPIRE 2A. A petascale system with eight times the computing power of its predecessor, the ASPIRE 2A was included in November 2022’s TOP500 list of the world’s fastest supercomputers, with its GPU and CPU portions ranking 167th and 275th, respectively.
However, NSCC’s work goes beyond being caretakers of cutting-edge computers. Tan, who also serves as NSCC’s Interim Technical Director, describes his team as enablers and infrastructure providers.
“We build researchers the information highways they need,” he explained. “We make sure that their code is optimised for their algorithms, that their computations are adequately powered and on time, and that their data is stored securely. Where our own facilities are insufficient, we help connect them to others that meet their needs.”
Frequent NSCC collaborators include A*STAR research institutes such as the IHPC, the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) and the Bioinformatics Institute (BII), which harness HPC for projects ranging from constructing a national genomics database to mapping out prevalent regional SARS-CoV-2 strains. Public agencies such as the Centre for Climate Research Singapore (CCRS) also work on NSCC’s research infrastructure for large-scale climate modelling.
NSCC’s offerings are themselves supported by close partnerships with other organisations. Working with the A*STAR Computational Resource Centre (A*CRC) and the Singapore Advanced Research and Education Network (SingAREN), NSCC supercomputers are linked to research institutes both locally and abroad through high-speed networks. These connections carry up to 100 gigabits of data per second across continents, allowing NSCC to plug into a global network of data and compute resources.
In turn, NSCC helps researchers tap into the capabilities of other national HPC centres. One such agreement with Japan’s Research Organisation for Information Science and Technology (RIST) allows NSCC to connect researchers in Singapore to Fugaku, Asia’s most powerful supercomputer.
NSCC also assists public agencies and private companies in developing their HPC capabilities. A recently announced agreement with the National University Health System (NUHS) will see NSCC developing PRESCIENCE, a new petascale national supercomputing resource to serve Singapore’s healthcare research needs. PRESCIENCE will be used to train AI models that help clinicians predict patient health trajectories and improve quality of care.
1. Smarter cities and industries
Since NSCC’s inception, it has powered impactful work by A*STAR researchers and partners. A close collaborator remains the IHPC, which harnesses simulation, AI and computational modelling to tackle scientific, industrial and societal challenges.
“In today’s research environment, data is a key currency,” said Michael Sullivan, IHPC Advisor in Material Science and Chemistry. “Having NSCC’s national-scale resources to generate data helps us maintain Singapore’s research excellence. We also work closely with industry partners to bring modelling and simulation to their R&D, helping them stay competitive global innovators.”
IHPC projects have focused on Singapore’s urban planning and infrastructure, working with other A*STAR institutes like the Institute for Infocomm Research (I2R); public agencies like the Housing Development Board (HDB); and private companies like Surbana Jurong.
One such project is the Integrated Environment Modeller (IEM), a nationwide 3D urban microclimate simulation. Completed on the ASPIRE 1, the IEM has helped build Virtual Singapore, a dynamic ‘digital twin’ city model and shared data platform under the NRF, Singapore Land Authority (SLA) and the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech).
Another IHPC-NSCC project, the Accelerated Catalyst Development Platform, aims to speed up the search for new catalysts for more sustainable industrial operations.
“We aim to shorten the most time-consuming step in catalyst development fivefold,” Sullivan shared. “With HPC, we’re using high-throughput modelling and AI model training to find new catalysts. Many are used in carbon conversion and hydrogen generation; they’re tied to our low-carbon future.”
2. Drawing out health insights
A goal of modern medicine is to optimise healthcare to each patient’s needs. In Singapore, this led to the launch of the National Precision Medicine (NPM) programme. The NPM’s first phase created SG10K_Health, a database of 10,000 Singaporean genomes to build the Singapore Reference Genome.
Assembled via a multi-institutional effort with 10,000 healthy local volunteers, SG10K_Health is the largest Asian whole-genome database to date, with its pilot phase uncovering over 170 million genetic variants. SG10K_Health was aided by NSCC computing, storage and networking resources, with direct high-speed links between GIS’s sequencing farms and NSCC’s data centre.
“The ASPIRE 1 enabled us to process the thousands of SG10K_Health genomes in a high-throughput manner and to deliver a high-quality final database on schedule,” said Patrick Tan, GIS Executive Director and SG10K_Health lead investigator.
Efforts against COVID-19 also saw NSCC support. Using its resources, IHPC and A*STAR’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) visualised and quantified the dynamics of aerial COVID-19 transmission in local environments, providing data to inform national preventive measures.
The NSCC also aided data workflow processing by BII and the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID) as they developed the world’s largest crowdsourced, public database of SARS-CoV-2 virus sequences: a vital tool for researchers worldwide in the ongoing pandemic.
3. Safer ships for changing seas
With a changing climate comes more uncertain maritime conditions. The Technology Centre for Offshore and Marine, Singapore (TCOMS) is a national R&D centre supporting the transformation of oceanic sectors, such as maritime, marine and offshore engineering; and national priorities in maritime security and coastal adaptation.
At TCOMS, experts from various sectors work together to co-create, stress test and validate novel concepts for future oceanic solutions. NSCC’s petascale supercomputers support their efforts by enabling high-fidelity computational fluid dynamics (CFD) simulations. These shed light on how oceanic systems and assets—such as cargo ships—respond to challenging environments and extreme weather.
“CFD simulations typically generate millions of cells to accurately model flow behaviours. With NSCC support, TCOMS researchers have access to thousands of computing cores which can reduce simulation times more than tenfold,” said Haihua Xu, a TCOMS Scientist. “High-speed network connectivity between NSCC and TCOMS also lets our researchers perform pre-processing, meshing and post-processing work on the NSCC cluster to boost productivity.”
4. Breaking ground for the quantum era
For computer scientists, quantum computers are the key to solving certain mathematical problems beyond the scope of classical machines. Worldwide, research is ongoing to develop a real-world quantum computer that can achieve that benchmark for practical applications.
To build Singapore’s quantum ecosystem, the National Quantum Computing Hub (NQCH) unites expertise and resources from NSCC, IHPC and the NUS-hosted Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT). There, CQT and IHPC researchers develop quantum computing hardware and software, exploring their applications with industry partners.
In turn, NSCC supercomputing power helps simulate quantum computers, letting researchers train algorithms for future use in real machines. NSCC will also house a real-life quantum computer, enabling new avenues of research that split complex calculations across classical and quantum systems, harnessing their strengths.
“While practical quantum computers remain small and noisy, simulations are a powerful tool to develop new software and methods. NSCC will be well-prepared to become an early adopter of on-premise quantum computing when we have the hardware ready,” said José Ignacio Latorre, CQT Director and NCQH Lead Principal Investigator.
KEEPING A STEP AHEAD
As NSCC enters its eighth year, the torch lit by Ho as its inaugural Chairman since 2016 will be passed to Gim Pew Quek as NSCC Steering Committee Chairman-Designate.
“Under Peter Ho’s leadership, NSCC established HPC as an indispensable tool within our country’s Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) community,” said Quek. “HPC is a tremendous enabler for scientists and engineers worldwide; especially in Singapore, given our limited manpower. Our primary responsibility is to build on this strong foundation and strengthen the value we add for our partners.”
That progressive work includes upgrades to NSCC’s supercomputing resources, with successors to the ASPIRE 1 already in the pipeline.
“The ASPIRE 1 was a trusted workhorse that helped accelerate research and strengthen industry competitiveness. As of late 2022, the ASPIRE 2A is on track to enhance our computing resources significantly, and we have begun the groundwork for the ASPIRE 3,” Quek shared.
NSCC Chief Executive Tin Wee Tan added that to keep pace with the R&D community’s needs, NSCC is working with other national platforms to prepare for quantum-ready data centres while continuing to enhance its green data centre initiatives. The team also plans to acquire a scalable HPC cluster tailored to support AI-based research.
Beyond the machines, both Ho and Quek emphasise the importance of understanding what industries and researchers need and working with educational institutions to develop Singapore’s HPC talent pipeline.
“We need to ensure NSCC is adequately resourced, engage RIE domain leaders to synergise planning and execution, and build more collaborations with supercomputing centres worldwide,” said Quek. “I would also like to see NSCC expand HPC’s accessibility, especially to those who have not yet considered HPC due to cost or ease of use.”
Moving forward, Quek’s vision is for NSCC to be a national strategic resource for Singapore’s economy and people while also aiding international efforts to tackle global challenges. “We look forward to NSCC being an integral scientific resource leveraged by all of Singapore’s researchers in their pursuit of world-class research,” added Ho.