April 13, 2021

Amsterdam Science Park gets new supercomputer ‘Snellius’

Everyone’s excited about the Netherlands’ fastest computer currently being installed at Amsterdam Science Park. “We’re back up to speed again,” exudes Walter Lioen from SURF. And it’s not only the academic world looking forward to getting core time.  “Any business can call us with a request as long as it fits within our agenda of research, education and innovation.” So, what are you waiting for?

A new arrival at the Science Park

After eight years of service, the Netherlands’ supercomputer Cartesius – named after René Descartes – has retired. The Dutch scientific community will not mourn it: its €20-million replacement Snellius is ten times faster and representing the power of 100,000 interconnected laptops. Installation has already begun and Snellius should be good to go by 1 July.

Snellius is named after the Dutch astronomer and mathematician Willebrord Snellius (1580-1626), known for his law of refraction of light (Snell’s law). In a lucky coincidence, ‘snel’ also means ‘fast’ in Dutch.

Open for business

Like its predecessor, Snellius will be housed in the Amsterdam Data Tower. Its calculating power will be applied to such endeavours as climate research, COVID-19 diagnostics or charting out the yogic twisting of proteins. Over 200 Dutch research projects will call on the power of Snellius every year.

But it’s not only research institutes that can request core hours. “Any business can call us with a request as long as it fits within our agenda of research, education and innovation. We even work with SMEs and small companies,” says Walter Lioen.

Lioen is the manager of Research Services at SURF, the collaborative organisation for ICT in Dutch education and research that administers Snellius and supports researchers, whether from academia or the business world, in making optimal use of the supercomputer.

“We’re here to help,” says Lioen. “Just reach out.”

Walter Lioen, Unit Manager, SURF “For Snellius it doesn’t matter. It could be about research to design better shampoo or potato chips ”

Ten times the speed at ten times the efficiency

Lioen has spent most of his professional life around supercomputers. He was already on site at the Science Park when the first supercomputer arrived in 1984. “But this phone,” he says, holding up his smartphone over Zoom, “is far more powerful than that first supercomputer.”

Indeed, “supercomputer” is a relative term and Snellius will also quickly become outdated. But for now, it represents the state of the art. And its tenfold jump in speed comes with no corresponding increase in energy use. Moreover, by using the latest generation GPUs (graphics processing units), the system is very well suited to machine learning – an area where Amsterdam enjoys a global reputation. And the funding to replace Snellius in five years’ time is already in place, too.

Good for the park

While a national organisation, there’s still many advantages for SURF to be located in Amsterdam Science Park, according to Lioen. “We’re close to our academic peers and partners such as the University of Amsterdam, Nikhef (The National Institute for Subatomic Physics), and CWI (the national research institute for mathematics and computer science). Many at the park use our infrastructure and it’s good to visit each other and have that face-to-face contact – when there was no corona, of course.”

Onward towards virtual humans

Lioen is hard to pin down on what upcoming Snellius projects has him the most excited. “I get excited about a lot of things,” he laughs. “But if I have to choose one, then I suggest to watch the Virtual Humans film,” an introduction to CompBioMed, a European project focused on the use and development of computational methods for biomedical applications.

“But for Snellius,” adds Lioen, “it doesn’t matter. It could be about research to design better shampoo or potato chips.”

Watch the EenVandaag TV report about the supercomputer here (only Dutch)

Also listen to this podcast from BNR with Tristan Suerink from Nikhef. He came up with the name Snellius and tells us how to build a supercomputer and what we can do with it.

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