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Solar Powered Supercomputer Draws Bead on Zika Virus

November 18, 2016

Visitors arriving at the Texas Advanced Computing Center at the University of Texas immediately notice large solar panels covering the parking lot. These panels power Hikari, the world’s first solar-powered supercomputer, which is currently calculating biology applications to help solve the Zika virus crisis.

Supercomputers have the power to transform science and innovations, but the amount of energy they require has been a limiting factor towards their expansion. Because traditional supercomputers consume vast amounts of electricity and produce a lot of heat, larger cooling facilities must be constructed to ensure proper operation. To overcome this challenge, the Texas Advanced Computing Center partnered with the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), a Japanese government agency, NTT Facilities Inc. and HPE to develop Hikari.

Energy-Efficient Supercomputers

“Because the solar panels are wired directly to the computer, Hikari runs basically on free energy, in the most efficient and sustainable way” says Nic Dube Chief Technologist for High-Performance Computing at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. “If you look at the dashboard for Hikari, you can see that the real-time energy performance of this system outperforms any other platform on the planet.”

Hikari leverages the Apollo 8000 warm water cooling system that eliminates the need for Computer Room Air Handlers (CRAH) and, by using dry-coolers instead of chillers, significantly reduces the cooling energy that would normally be required. In addition, the Apollo 8000 system was designed to minimize the supporting datacenter infrastructure to a minimum, driving savings not only on the operating expenses, but on the upfront capital expenses too.

Dube says that transmitting from the photovoltaic (PV) array high-voltage DC source straight to a high-voltage DC computer is truly a game changer. “During the day, energy produced by the solar system feeds straight into the computer. At nighttime, when the PV array does not create energy, the Apollo system switches to an AC-based grid. It’s the best of both worlds” says Dube.

The Data Center of the Future

As data centers are rapidly growing in size to meet data and computing demands, the amount of power and density required to run the operations has increased. Since we lose energy efficiency every time AC converts to DC, Dan Stanzione, executive director at the Texas Advanced Computing Center, says Hikari is a large-scale experiment to run a production-scale data center entirely on DC power. At the core of the project is the HPE 8000 server. The supercomputer runs on about 200,000 watts of DC power. Other components of Hikari include DC battery systems, DC air-conditioning, DC lighting, DC supply and solar panels.

“We were looking at how to incorporate HVDC in the most efficient water-cooled racks on the planet (Apollo 8000) and how to incorporate renewables. The plan is to provide real evidence at a production scale to help improve data centers for years to come,” says Stanzione. Texas Advanced Computing Center.

Since the Hikari team launched the measurement phase at the end of August, more than 30 percent of the total power used by the supercomputer has been supplied by renewable energy sources. During some daylight hours, the system was operating at 100 percent from renewable sources. The team is now working on measuring DC power and the amount of power saved from HDVC distribution alone.

Partnering for the Future of Supercomputers

Stanzione says Hewlett-Packard Enterprise has been a key partner on this project. Texas Advanced Computing Center selected the Apollo 8000 for the core of the Hikari because HPE was the only manufacturer that could deliver an HVDC-supplied cluster with the required size and speed. “We are asking the industry to make a huge change from AC power to DC power in the server. HPE has really embraced investigating and exploring alternative technologies,” says Stanzione. “HPE has been a huge contributor and a great innovator. Without their partnership, we could never have built one of the world’s greenest supercomputers.”

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