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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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:
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.”
“…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.”
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.