The new AI supercomputer will be the fastest in the U.K. when it launches in 2024 and will leverage artificial intelligence to drive breakthroughs in cutting-edge science.
The U.K. government is spending £225 million ($280 million) in a bid to build one of the world’s fastest supercomputers, capable of delivering over 200 petaflops – some 200 quadrillion calculations – every second.
Isambard-AI, named after pioneering British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, will be 10 times faster than the U.K.’s current fastest supercomputer, ARCHER2, and is one of two new machines being built to drive breakthroughs in robotics, data analytics, fusion energy, healthcare and climate research.
Building Britain’s most powerful supercomputer
Built by Hewlett Packard Enterprise and hosted by the University of Bristol, Isambard-AI will comprise nearly 5,000 NVIDIA GH200 Grace Hopper Superchips and will contribute 21 exaflops of AI performance to researchers when it opens at Bristol’s National Composites Center in mid-2024 (Figure A).
Simon McIntosh-Smith, a University of Bristol professor and director of the Isambard National Research Facility, said in an HPE press release that Isambard-AI represented “a huge leap forward for AI computational power” for the United Kingdom.
“Today, Isambard-AI would rank within the top 10 fastest supercomputers in the world and, when in operation later in 2024, it will be one of the most powerful AI systems for open science anywhere,” McIntosh-Smith said in the press release.
He added: “It’s immensely exciting to be at the forefront of the AI revolution and to partner with industry leaders HPE and NVIDIA to rapidly build and deploy large-scale research computing infrastructure to create one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world.”
The UK sets out to become the world leader in AI
Isambard-AI was first announced in September 2023 as part of the U.K. government’s plans to establish a new AI Research Resource – or AIRR – to “drive pioneering AI research and innovation in the UK” and make the country a world leader in artificial intelligence.
The funding injection for the new supercomputer was announced by the U.K.’s Department for Science, Innovation and Technology during last week’s AI Safety Summit, where it also unveiled plans to triple investment in AIRR from £100 million (£124 million) to £300 million ($372 million).
Isambard-AI will be connected to another supercomputer called Dawn, which is being built by Dell, Intel and U.K. computing consultancy StackHPC in partnership with the University of Cambridge, and is due to start running in the coming months.
Together, Isambard-AI and Dawn will provide researchers and scientists with “more than 30-times the capacity of the U.K.’s current public AI computing tools,” according to DIST.
Supporting the U.K. government’s research into AI risks and safety
The Bristol supercomputing facility will be accessible to a range of British organizations for the purposes of AI research. Priority access will be given to the U.K. government’s Frontier AI Taskforce “to support its work to mitigate the risks posed by the most advanced forms of AI, including national security from the development of bioweapons and cyberattacks,” as stated in the U.K. government’s press release about Isambard-AI.
The facility will also support work carried out by the AI Safety Institute, the recently-formed government body tasked with testing the safety and viability of new AI models before and after deployment to help inform government policy.
How big is the AI industry in the U.K.?
According to the U.K. government, as of March 2023, artificial intelligence already contributes more than £3.7 billion ($4.6 billion) to the U.K. economy and employs more than 50,000 people. It claims the country is home to twice as many AI companies as any other European nation, with “hundreds more” setting up shop in the U.K. each year.
Justin Hotard, executive vice president and general manager, HPC, AI & Labs at HPE, said in the HPE press release that the U.K.’s recent investment in AI supercomputing underscored “its commitment to taking a global leadership position in AI.”
Hotard added: “The Isambard-AI system will harness world-leading supercomputing, including high-performance networking co-developed at HPE’s Bristol labs, to provide the performance and scale required for compute-intensive AI projects.”
He added: “We are proud to partner with the U.K. Government and the University of Bristol to give U.K. researchers and industry access to Europe’s largest AI system for open science.”
Technical details about the Isambard-AI supercomputer
Isambard-AI will be built using the HPE Cray EX supercomputing framework and will feature the HPE Slingshot 11 interconnect framework, which is designed to handle the massive data throughput required for complex simulations and AI workloads.
When activated, the supercomputer is expected to hit over 200 petaflops of computing performance as per the Top500 LINPACK benchmark – the standard for measuring a computer system’s processing speed. This computing power will allow for 21 exaflops of AI performance, an exaflop being a measure of quintillion floating-point operations per second used to gauge specialized AI computational tasks. For perspective, the latest smartphones on the market are “only” capable of delivering trillions of calculations per second.
The supercomputer will be hosted in a self-cooled, self-contained data center at NCC, based at the Bristol & Bath Science Park. NCC is one of seven research centers across the U.K. that form the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, which offers access to research and development facilities and expertise that might otherwise be inaccessible to U.K. businesses.
According to NVIDIA, a second, Arm-based supercomputer coming to the NCC next year called Isambard 3 will deliver an estimated 2.7 petaflops of computing performance while consuming less than 270 kilowatts of power, making it “among the world’s three greenest non-accelerated supercomputers.”
Ian Buck, vice president of hyperscale and HPC at NVIDIA, said in the HPE release: “In building one of the world’s fastest AI supercomputers, the U.K. is demonstrating the importance for nations to create their own infrastructure. Isambard-AI will provide researchers with the same state-of-the-art AI and HPC compute resources used by the world’s leading AI pioneers, enabling the U.K. to introduce the next wave of AI and scientific breakthroughs.”