Blue Brain 5 is the supercomputer uncovering the mysteries of grey matter

Supercomputer power is frequently used to model things that your bog-standard computer can’t handle; think silicon-sweating quantum mechanics, molecular modelling tasks, the search for oil and gas, or indeed the future of the world’s climate.

Now such power is being put to the challenge of modelling and simulating the mammalian brain, courtesy of Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and its “next-generation” supercomputer.

The technology firm has brought its experience in high-performance computing (HPC) to the Blue Brain Project, a Swiss brain research initiative run by academic institution École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

Dubbed Blue Brain 5, the new supercomputer HPE is based on the company’s SGI 8600 System, a machine already au fait with running demanding high-performance workloads.

How a supercomputer helps study the brain

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The mountain of performance found within Blue Brain 5 will be used to better understand the brains of mammals, with the Blue Brain Project looking at 2020 to model all the regions of a mouse brain. That may sound like a simple task but even the grey matter of the smallest mammals is a complex web of nerve cells and bioelectrical activity.

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With increased understanding of mammalian brains, it’s hoped that an improved knowledge of brain disorders can be gleaned from the modelling and simulation. Such disorders are complex phenomena that span from the genes to the circuits of nodes and synapses that make up mammal brains. Blue Brain 5 will help understand how the brain is mapped and potentially spot anomalies.

“The Blue Brain Project’s scientific mission is critically dependent on our supercomputing capabilities,” said Felix Schürmann, co-director at the Blue Brain Project.

“Modeling an individual neuron at Blue Brain today leads to around 20,000 ordinary differential equations – when modelling entire brain regions, this quickly raises to 100 billion equations that have to be solved concurrently. HPE helps us to navigate the challenging technology landscape in supercomputing.”

What is Blue Brain 5?

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With a budget of 18 million Swiss Francs, some £13.6 million, to cover the supercomputer’s hardware and HPE expertise, Blue Brain 5 has 372 compute nodes to deliver 1.06 petaflops (PFLOPS) of peak performance. Alongside this, there’s 94 terabytes of available memory, equivalent to that of over 31,000 iPhone X’s, and makes use of Intel’s Xeon Gold 6140 and Xeon Phi 72300 processors as well as Nvidia’s Tesla V100 graphics processors.

If that sounds like an awful lot of nonsense to you, don’t worry, it just means that Blue Brain 5 is an incredibly powerful machine. It may not be quite as powerful as the world’s most powerful supercomputer but, as Blue Brain 5 is nearly 192 times as powerful as last year’s top-line iMac, it’s still not to be underestimated.

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Adding to the supercomputer’s compute chops are single and dual-rail Mellanox InfiniBand high-performance networks. And 4 petabytes of high-performance storage delivers more than 50GB/s aggregated bandwidth, associated with an 80 GB/s Infinite Memory Engine flash-based burst buffer; basically, that’s a lot of very fast storage.

Blue Brain 5 can also host different subsystems geared for specific tasks such as deep learning or data visualisations, all while still being able to operate as one system. With four different configurations, the supercomputer’s architecture lets it tackle the various complex and demanding tasks needed to reconstruct and simulate the workflows of a human brain for the project.

The Blue Brain Project shows there’s still plenty of scope for dedicated supercomputer power, even in the face of easily accessible cloud computing, to tackle the more complex challenges the world faces which humanity wants to have a stab at solving.

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