Melbourne to host $100 million life sciences supercomputer

BIO 2008: 400 terapflops for Melbourne.

Melbourne will be home to a $100 million, 400 teraflop supercomputer, expected to be the world's largest supercomputer dedicated purely to the life sciences.

The supercomputer will be hosted at the University of Melbourne's Parkville campus. The university has chipped in $50 million towards the project, with the other half funded by the Victorian Government.

Expressions of interest for the facility, to be called the Victorian Life Sciences Computation Initiative, will be released later this year, with major installations planned for 2009 and 2011.

The University of Melbourne is handling the tender, with expectations that it should be up and running as early as next year.

Announcing the project at the University of California San Diego on Tuesday, where he is leading the Victorian delegation at the BIO 2008 convention, Premier John Brumby said the supercomputer will focus on computational biology and will use large databases of genetic information, complex models of analysis of human systems and hundreds of teraflops of computing power.

"This is a big deal - it's the biggest in Australia and the biggest for the life sciences in the world," Brumby said. "It is 400 teraflops - to give you a comparison, the University of California San Diego, theirs is 40.

"It's the biggest in Australia and the biggest for the life sciences in the world. It's a great fit with the Synchrotron, a great fit with the Australian Stem Cell Centre"

He said the supercomputer will accelerate ground-breaking research in key areas such as cancer, cardio-vascular and neurological disease, chronic inflammatory diseases, bone diseases, diabetes and other life-threatening diseases.

In addition to University of Melbourne scientists, researchers from other Victorian universities and institutes will have access to the supercomputer.

Brumby said the idea for a supercomputer had always been in the back of his mind, particularly once the other big ideas were up and running.

"When we were first elected to government and I was meeting with all of the groups about what we needed to do to elevate our position in the biotech space, we had a number of suggestions - a synchrotron, a stem cell centre - but a number of people said the next cab off the rank should be a supercomputer," he said.

"[Nobel laureate Professor] Peter Doherty made a speech about three or four years ago and he told me about all of his work at St Jude's [Hospital in Tennessee] on children's cancer and he said that if he had a supercomputer facility to analyse all of that data, they'd be able to further cancer diagnosis and cancer treatment. That had a big impact on me.

"So when the university formally made the application I just thought - it's too good an opportunity to pass up, and bang we've done it."

Melbourne Uni's news follows from IBM's big announcement last week that it had broken the petaflop barrier with a system at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, dubbed the RoadRunner. This system cost US$100 million.

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Kate McDonald

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