The story of HECToR

an impact analysis commissioned by the EPSRC

What was HECToR?

In October 2007 Britain’s fastest supercomputer went live in a secure location outside Edinburgh. Its name was HECToR. Its mission was to solve problems at the frontiers of scientific knowledge.

High performance computing is a crucial part of the UK’s scientific infrastructure, underpinning its position as a leading research nation. Costing £118m over the course of its life, HECToR was funded by three UK Research Councils, and run under a partnership arrangement between the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, higher education and industry.

In early 2014, HECToR was retired from service and replaced by its even faster successor, ARCHER, reflecting the perpetual need for the UK to reinvest in the latest technology to retain its competitive advantage. The EPSRC commissioned this report to provide an independent, evidence-based evaluation of the impact HECToR delivered for UK science, the economy and society.

Download the full PDF report

What it could do

The purpose of HECToR was to provide researchers with a world-class supercomputer, powerful enough to run simulations and calculations that could tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges in fields as diverse as engineering, climate modelling and human biology.

Its memory was vast. It could store

1,000 million million million million

bytes of data. If you started listening to that much music on an iPod, you would finish in the year 3153.


HECToR was capable of performing

800 million million

calculations per second. That’s 100,000 calculations per second for every human on the planet.

HECToR’s job was to solve the previously unsolvable. By modelling the real world, its high-speed brain came up with answers to complex mathematical equations that no other UK machine could crack.

HECToR’s impact

  • A truly national resource
    HECToR was used by 2,500 researchers across the length and breadth of the UK. A total of 272 organisations across academia, government and industry were able to harness its power.

  • An enabler of world-leading research
    HECToR had a significant impact on the scientific community. Its publications frequently appear amongst the most highly cited in their fields.

  • 92-percent

    • 92% of its users believe HECToR improved the quality of their research
    • HECToR enabled >800 publications, which are twice as likely as the UK average to be in the top 5% of papers in their field
  • A focal point for international collaboration
    Through HECToR, the UK was able to access the pan-European HPC infrastructure and collaborate with the best researchers across the globe.

  • A training ground for future leaders in HPC
    Through training well over 100 PhD students in high performance computing, HECToR safeguarded the pipeline of skilled people, which is of paramount importance both to the health of UK computational research and to industrial users of HPC in the UK.

  • coin

    • £66m of follow-on funding for research performed on HECToR
    • At least 130 PhD students were trained on HECToR, with virtually 100% finding employment on graduation
  • A centre of expertise in code development and optimisation
    The UK is a world leader in the development and optimisation of HPC software. Code improvements delivered through HECToR delivered efficiency savings for academic and industrial HPC users that run into many million of pounds.

  • A proven innovation accelerator
    Our analysis uncovered more than 60 innovations that had been supported by HECToR, a high proportion of which were considered to be ‘major discoveries and pioneering breakthroughs’.

  • 32% of HECToR users were involved in direct or indirect collaborations with industry

  • 88% of major research projects on HECToR progressed onto its successor, ARCHER

  • Benefitting UK society and the economy
    Research enabled by HECToR has had a far-reaching impact on the UK economy and society, from inspiring groundbreaking engineering innovations to strengthening the UK’s resilience to climate change.

Case studies


"This kind of capability does not just help the privileged few. It opens research opportunities to a host of investigators that might otherwise not be able to do research."

Prof William K. George,
Distinguished Teaching Professor (Prof. Emeritus),
Princeton University


Much of the fundamental research undertaken on HECToR will only bear fruit years or even decades into the future. Nevertheless, there remains untapped potential to leverage the national high performance computing service for the benefit of UK industry and society through:

  • Strengthening links with industry
    HECToR’s socioeconomic impact primarily occurred indirectly rather than as part of a top-down strategy. We therefore welcome the increased emphasis on industrial engagement now being pursued by the EPSRC for HECToR’s successor facility, ARCHER.
  • Securing the service’s status as a strategic asset
    Sustained investment in service provision and support should be married with a more flexible and responsive approach to hardware procurement.
  • Enhancing evaluation and monitoring
    Information to support evaluation of the service’s impact should be collected on an ongoing basis, with clear linkages between HECToR usage and research outcomes.

What is not in doubt is the continued importance to the UK of retaining a national HPC facility. The UK’s strength in computational research is an indispensable tool in meeting the major economic and societal challenges we face as a nation. If the capability on which these strengths are built is allowed to erode, the long-term damage to the UK’s knowledge and skills base could prove irreparable.

“…we were able to tackle industrial relevant problems that  required a very fundamental approach, and massive  computational resources, in order to advance understanding  and, ultimately, improve design performance.”

Professor Vittorio Michelassi, 
GE Global Research

“…Modelling is used more and more within Johnson Matthey, as a  consequence JM recruits from across the world, including the  UK. Without projects like HECToR, the ability to recruit within  the UK will be diminished.”

Rob Potter, 
Scientific Consultant at Johnson Matthey PLC

About this report

This report was commissioned by the EPSRC to evaluate the impact of HECToR, the UK’s high end computing resource from 2007 to 2014. It has been prepared by specialists in research evaluation and communication from four organisations: Research Consulting Limited, Research in Focus Limited, Bulletin and Elsevier.

Advises organisations on the delivery, dissemination and commercialisation of research. Founder Rob Johnson was formerly Head of Research Operations at the University of Nottingham.
Founder Rebecca Steliaros is an independent research evaluation, impact demonstration and grant application coach. Prior to this she spent 12 years working for the UK Research Councils.
Specialises in research communication and knoweldge exchange to maximise the economic and social benefit of research. Academic lead Chris O'Brien has worked with around 15 UK universities and research institutes.
World-leading provider of information solutions that enhance the performance of science, health, and technology professionals, empowering them to make better decisions, and deliver better care.