Wee Archie: replicating a supercomputer in a tiny package
By   |  February 24, 2016

A mini supercomputer that powers virtual dinosaur races shows how the world’s most powerful computers work.

What’s faster: a Tyrannosaurus, Velociraptor or Dilophosaurus? Using HPC the EPCC, Edinburgh Super Computing Centre, can find out by combining paleontology with biology to form a simulation of these ancient creatures. What’s more, this provides an engaging visual demonstration of how HPC can be applied to the sciences which is especially applicable to outreach events such as the British Science Festival. By allowing the public to design and race dinosaurs against each other, we can make a lasting impression about how simulation is the third research methodology, complementing theory and experiment.

The aim of this project is to further develop the prototype dinosaur-racing application. There are two aspects to this software:

  1. An existing forward dynamic modelling program known as GaitSym, which is the simulation workhorse. It allows the makeup of a dinosaur’s skeleton, muscles and joints to be specified, and uses Newton’s Laws to calculate the movements that result from these choices. GaitSym already runs on HECToR.
  2. A client which allows the public to easily configure and simulate their own dinosaurs, visualising the results of their choices via realtime races. This client is currently very basic and the visualisations provided very simple.

Ideally, dinosaurs would be designed and configured visually. This would be followed by a detailed view of their composition and how they race each other. The visualisation component is the broad context of this project.

The compact machine – called Wee ARCHIE – takes its name from the £43m ARCHER supercomputer at the University’s Advanced Computing Facility. Wee ARCHIE replicates in miniature high performance computing techniques to simulate races between on-screen dinosaurs.

Parallel computing: Wee ARCHIE and its larger namesake use parallel computing systems, which enable many calculations to be completed instantaneously on different microprocessors. It was designed and built by the University’s science outreach group, FUSION, in collaboration with the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre. The machine has already proven popular with school pupils at outreach events designed to shed light on the complexities of supercomputing.

Compact system: The portable system displays the types of hardware found inside the world’s most powerful supercomputers. It contains 18 credit card-sized processors housed in a custom-made Perspex case. LED displays on each of the processors light up when they are in use, showing how multiple parts of a parallel computing system work together to perform complex tasks.

Dinosaur racing: The program lets users modify the structure of dinosaurs’ muscles and joints, altering their ability to run. Wee ARCHIE tests each of the configurations quickly, and presents the results as an on-screen race.

High performance computing: Supercomputers are used for tasks that require huge amounts of processing power, such as weather forecasting and molecular modelling of biological compounds.
They often occupy several thousand square feet.

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