Why HPC matters: justifying its enormous energy use

We recently attended a talk at the Texas Advanced Computing Centre (TACC) about Frontera, the centre’s next generation high performance computing (HPC) machine. Frontera will be operational in 2019 and will consume almost 6MW of power at its peak – the equivalent of 5,000 Texas homes or about 15,000 European homes.

Of course, a lot of this power comes from solar, but with the carbon footprint of delivering the hardware already high, we have a duty to ensure that HPC is worth it. Here are a few reasons why it is.

Children and genetic disease

At a 2018 AWS Life Sciences event in London, Illumina presented some stark facts about genetic diseases:

  • Around the world, 4.5% of children present with a genetic condition
  • Half of rare genetic diseases affect children
  • 30% of children with a rare undiagnosed genetic disease will die before they are five
  • It takes nearly eight years to get a diagnosis in the US, nearly six years in the UK and most patients will see four specialists before they get the right diagnosis.

All this could be changed by sequencing using HPC.

The cost of whole genome sequencing is high at around $100,000. But for some children who face many painful and expensive operations before eventually turning to be a palliative case, both time and money could be saved by shortening the time to diagnosis and focusing on quality of life if a cure is not available.

Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer, Genomics England, said in her recent report ‘Generation Genome’: “Genomic medicine has the potential to save costs and improve quality of care by targeting treatment, maximising benefit and reducing side effects. For patients with rare diseases, it can shorten their ‘diagnostic odyssey’, helping to identify therapeutic options faster and improve outcomes.

“The new science of genomics is opening up better diagnoses for patients, better and safer treatments, opportunities for screening and the possibilities for prevention.”

Read our latest whitepaper on accelerating genome pipelines at the Wellcome Sanger Institute.

Weather forecasting

Climate and weather prediction saves lives. As climate change increasingly impacts our planet, this will only become more important. By using HPC, forecasters can help communities to prepare for the impact of extreme weather.

At the moment, weather forecasters dominate the world’s largest machines, deploying some of the largest supercomputers used for a single purpose. TACC’s Stampede 2 is used to top up the local weather forecast when a storm is brewing. It’s then really a race of machine against the elements to deliver a forecast on time to save lives.

Innovation everywhere

As big data continues to get bigger, more and more scientific and research organisations are using HPC to progress their innovations. The need to analyse huge groups of data quickly is becoming essential to many technologies and industries, from developing self-driving cars and smart buildings to urban planning and archaeology.

The list of industries involved in HPC is only going to get bigger as more people rely on big data. Without HPC we wouldn’t be able to progress nearly as fast – perhaps we can even get close to finding solutions to global environmental problems.