Fastest AI Supercomputer in the UK Comes Online

Powered by HPE, Nvidia tech, Isambard-AI recognized as the world’s second greenest supercomputer

Ben Wodecki, Jr. Editor

May 13, 2024

3 Min Read
A series of blue and red computer wires plugged into a hardwire rack
An Isambard phase one rackChristy Nunn/University of Bristol

The U.K.’s fastest and most powerful supercomputer has come online to power AI training and research workloads.

Located in Bristol, around two and half hours southwest of London, the Isambard-AI supercomputer cost $272 million to develop and is powered by Nvidia and HPE hardware.

Phase one of the supercomputer came online May 13. Researchers, including the country’s AI Safety Institute, can use it to power their research projects from later this month.

“With the launch of the first stage of the University of Bristol’s supercomputer Isambard-AI, we're witnessing a groundbreaking moment for UK science, innovation and technology,” said Viscount Camrose, the U.K. minister for AI.

“This world-class equipment will revolutionize research possibilities here in the U.K., with our world-first AI Safety Institute among the organizations who are set to benefit by harnessing one of the most powerful computer systems on the planet to drive forward their vital research.”

Isambard-AI phase one produces 647 petaflops per second of eight-bit floating point. To translate its performance into simple terms, if the entire Earth’s population were to perform a calculation in a second, it would take 2.3 billion years to complete — Isambard-AI can do that but in one second.

Related:UK to Build Its Fastest Supercomputer in Bid to Lead in AI

“That’s a pretty astounding performance, even though we can pack it into a relatively small space,” said Professor Simon McIntosh-Smith, director of the University of Bristol’s Center for Supercomputing.

Phase one of Isambard-AI consists of an HPE Cray EX2500 supercomputer powered by 168 Nvidia GH200 Superchips.

The supercomputing project will expand with more than 5,000 Nvidia GPUs on the way.

“When the remaining 5,280 GPUs arrive at the University’s National Composites Center later in the summer, it will increase the performance by a factor of 32,” McIntosh-Smith said.

Matt Harris, HPE’s managing director for the U.K., Ireland, Middle East and Africa said phase one of the supercomputer took just three months to go from concept design to going live.

“This unique supercomputer is the centerpiece of the U.K. Government's AI research resource and will enable organizations like the AI Safety Institute to train generative AI models at scale with research outcomes expected as soon as May this year,” Harris said.

Second Greenest Top500 Supercomputer

As phase one of Isambard-AI came online, the supercomputer received instant recognition as it was listed as the second greenest supercomputer in the world as part of the Top500 list.

The Top500 biannually ranks the world’s supercomputers across a variety of categories including the most powerful.

Related:Ooh Arr, Bristol Be Gettin' the UK's Most Powerful AI Supercomputer

Isambard-AI was recognized for its energy efficiency, coming in second behind JEDI, the new Jupiter supercomputer procured by EuroHPC, the EU’s supercomputing initiative.

In terms of power, however, Isambard-AI phase one ranked number 128, sandwiched between the U.S. government’s PupMaya supercomputer (also built by HPE) and Artemis, housed in the United Arab Emirates by Microsoft-backed technology company G42 (also using Nvidia chips).

“Not only does Isambard-AI rank among the world's fastest supercomputers, but it also sets the standard for eco-conscious computing, leading the charge in efficiency and sustainability,” AI minister Camrose said.

Topping the latest list was Intel’s Frontier, which held onto its title as the most powerful non-distributed supercomputer for the third Top500 list in a row.

UK Joins EU Supercomputer Program

Isambard-AI’s switch on also coincided with news that the U.K. was joining the EU’s EuroHPC program.

The U.K.’s involvement means its researchers and academics will gain access to the Horizon Europe-funded portion of the program, worth more than $966 million between 2021 to 2027.

“Businesses, researchers and academics need access to the most powerful computers so they can develop and evolve AI models in collaboration with our closest trading partners,” said Joe Cassidy, head of technology, media and telecoms at KPMG UK.

“Today's announcement will not only benefit those organizations but will have a wider impact on society, who will benefit from new AI use cases such as improved medical treatments, new clean energy applications and a shared perspective on how these technologies can be used for social good."

About the Author(s)

Ben Wodecki

Jr. Editor

Ben Wodecki is the Jr. Editor of AI Business, covering a wide range of AI content. Ben joined the team in March 2021 as assistant editor and was promoted to Jr. Editor. He has written for The New Statesman, Intellectual Property Magazine, and The Telegraph India, among others. He holds an MSc in Digital Journalism from Middlesex University.

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