Switch-on for Bristol’s world-class supercomputer opens up powerful new horizons for UK scientists

May 17, 2024

The University of Bristol’s groundbreaking, £225m Isambard-AI phase one supercomputer is now live – and has immediately been crowned as the UK’S fastest and most powerful as well as the world’s second greenest.

Scientists will soon be able to use Isambard-AI, pictured in its temporary housing, for research not previously possible in the UK, with organisations such as the AI Safety Institute expected to be among the first to harness its capabilities for artificial intelligence research. 

It will also play an essential role in critical areas such as AI safety, accelerating automated drug discovery and climate research and will be used by a range of organisations from across the UK to harness the power of AI in emerging technologies, such as training large language models (LLMs), healthcare and robotics.

One of the most efficient supercomputers ever been built, Isambard-AI has also already appeared at 129th in the latest edition of the TOP500 list of the world’s highest-performance computing (HPC) systems.

Isambard-AI, which is hosted in the National Composites Centre (NCC) on the Bristol & Bath Science Park, is 10 times more powerful than the UK’s current fastest supercomputer.

It is backed by a £900m government investment to transform the UK’s computing capacity and establish a dedicated AI Research Resource. 

Director of the Bristol Centre for Supercomputing at the University of Bristol, Prof Simon McIntosh-Smith, pictured with a delegation visiting Isambard-AI, said: “Assuming there are 8bn people on Earth, and everyone performed one calculation per second, it would take 2.3 years for all of them, working 24/7, 365-days a year, to do what Isambard-AI phase one could do in one second.

“That’s a pretty astounding performance, even though we can pack it into a relatively small space.”

He said phase one signified the start of the Isambard-AI service. When the remaining 5,280 GPUs are added later this summer, it will increase the performance by a factor of 32.

Isambard-AI phase one is powered by modular data centre technology supplied by HPE (Hewlett Packard Enterprise), with Cray EX2500 supercomputer and168 NVIDIA GH200 Grace Hopper superchips.

Minister for AI Viscount Camrose described the launch of Isambard-AI as a groundbreaking moment for UK science, innovation and technology. 

“This world-class equipment will revolutionise research possibilities here in the UK, with our world-first AI Safety Institute among the organisations that are set to benefit by harnessing one of the most powerful computer systems on the planet to drive forward their vital research.

“Not only does Isambard-AI rank among the world’s fastest supercomputers, but it also sets the standard for eco-conscious computing, leading the charge in efficiency and sustainability.

“From AI safety to healthcare and climate research, its capabilities are unparalleled, marking the UK out as a global leader in AI and responsible innovation.”

HPE managing director for UK, Ireland, Middle East and Africa, Matt Harris, added: “It is exciting to see Isambard-AI entering the first stage of its journey to deliver Europe’s largest AI system for open science and propel the UK as a global leader in AI.

“With AI progressing at rapid pace, we are proud to have delivered the system in a record time, with just three months between concept design and the system going live.”

The TOP500 list, published twice yearly at ISC and SC, provides the most accurate, reliable and historically consistent ranking of general-purpose HPC systems in common use for high-end scientific computing applications.

All images by Christy Nunn

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