The EU launches € 1 billion plan on supercomputers and tries to catch-up with competitors

The server rooms of a Data Centre in the European Union. (Copyright: European Union, 2014 / Source: EC – Audiovisual Service / Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand)

Last week the European Union announced one of the biggest investment plans on digital to date. With an official statement, the European Commission unveiled its plans to spend € 1 billion on supercomputers, to boost the bloc’s competitiveness and to catch-up with other international superpowers. The plan, whose aim is to develop Europe’s own exascale machines (systems that are capable of a billion billion calculations per second) by 2022, it is also a business move to help Brussels reduce the gap between the EU and the world’s leaders on the digital stage such as China, the US and Japan.

Background

As part of a wider plan to build a Digital Single Market in Europe and to boost a European Data Economy, the Commission drives EU-wide initiatives in the field of supercomputers infrastructure since 2012. In 2016, with the launch of the European Cloud Initiative, the EU called for the first time for the support of EU Member States to develop a High Performance Computing ecosystem based on European technology, aimed at creating a European Big Data ecosystem.

The following year, on 23 March 2017, Ministers from seven European countries (France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain) – which were followed by Belgium, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Greece and Croatia later the same year – signed a plan to establish a “Euro HPC” for acquiring and deploying an integrated world-class high-performance computing infrastructure. For the first time, a plan to build “exascale computers”, which are capable of at least 1018 calculations per second, was launched in the Old Continent.

The size of the plan

So, although the project itself kicked off in March last year, last week the funding and the details of the Euro HPC plan were unveiled for the first time. The EU announced on Thursday the launch of a new legal and funding structure, the EuroHPC Joint Undertaking, to acquire HPC supercomputers and to also support the research on hardware and software applications that will run on these machines. Health care, renewable energy and cybersecurity are the sectors where the European Commission sees benefits coming from the plan.

The EU itself will supply 486 million euros for the project by 2020 under the current Multiannual Financial Framework, with a similar amount coming from Member States and associated countries. So overall, around EUR 1 billion of public funding would be invested by 2020, with also private members invited to add in contributions.

“Lagging behind”

“Supercomputers are the engine to power the digital economy”, said Andrus Ansip, European Commission Vice-President for the Digital Single Market, who also admitted the delay the EU has on this kind of initiatives compared to other international superpowers. “It is a tough race and today the EU is lagging behind: we do not have any supercomputers in the world’s top-ten”, he said. “With the EuroHPC initiative we want to give European researchers and companies world-leading supercomputer capacity by 2020 – to develop technologies such as artificial intelligence and build the future’s everyday applications in areas like health, security or engineering”, he also added.

Competition and cyber security

Indeed the Old Continent – and not just the EU-28 – seems to be well behind its competitors on the world-class digital industry stage. Today, the two fastest supercomputers are in China: one of them is the Sunway TaihuLight, which has over 10 million computer cores. Most of the others in the top 10 are found in the US and Japan. Bloomberg reports that European companies, from aerospace giants such as Airbus SE and pharmaceutical firms like GlaxoSmithKline Plc, as well as government departments, increasingly have to rent computing time on supercomputers located in the US or Japan.

And, other than by mere economic reasons, the EU is also reportedly concerned by potential cyber security issues related to this lack of self-owned supercomuters. Relying on renting structures by other countries could indeed potentially expose Brussels to the leak of sensitive information – including commercial trade secrets and sensitive personal data, as suggested by Bloomberg. Also, experts warn that, in the event of a political crisis, Europe’s access to these supercomputers might even be cut off.

Eminent absence

Formally, the UK is not part of the project, and there’s increasing fear among British computer scientists that the country will miss out on the potential benefits of the project due to Brexit, Bloomberg reports. Simon McIntosh-Smith, a computer scientist at the University of Bristol, told Bloomberg: “Brexit has thrown a lot of uncertainty around the UK’s participation and it is really unfortunate and causing delay and confusion”.

UK researchers have historically contributed expertise to the supercomputer project, and Europe’s second fastest supercomputer is indeed located in the UK. It belongs to the Met Office and it is ranked number 15 in the world overall, according to the Top500 list of machines. Europe’s current fastest supercomputer is located in Italy, the CINECA’s Marconi, which has been built by CINECA and Lenovo.

Benefits of supercomputing

High-Performance Computing is a critical tool for understanding and responding to major scientific and societal challenges, such as early detection and treatment of diseases or developing new therapies based on personalised and precision medicine, as also declared by the EU. HPC is also used for preventing and managing large-scale natural disasters, notably for forecasting the paths which the hurricanes are following or for earthquake simulations. Sources reveal that the machines would also be useful to develop encryption technologies and counter cyberattacks.

Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society said. “Supercomputers are already at the core of major advancements and innovations in many areas directly affecting the daily lives of European citizens”. “They can help us to develop personalised medicine, save energy and fight against climate change more efficiently. A better European supercomputing infrastructure holds great potential for job creation and is a key factor for the digitisation of industry and increasing the competitiveness of the European economy”, she also said.

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