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The race to exascale is on — while Canada watches from the sidelines – CBC.ca

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This column is an opinion by Kris Rowe, a computational scientist working to get science and engineering applications ready for the next generation of exascale supercomputers. Born and educated in Canada, he has worked at major Canadian and American Universities, as well as two U.S. national laboratories. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Some of the brightest minds from around the globe have been quietly working on technology that promises to turn the world on its head, but so far Canada has been watching from the sidelines.

While it is unlikely that people will be huddled around their televisions to watch the power to these incredible machines being switched on, the scientific discoveries that follow the debut of exascale computers will change our daily lives in unimaginable ways.

So what exactly is an exascale computer?

It’s a supercomputer capable of performing more than a billion billion calculations per second — or 1 exaflops.

“Exa” is the metric system prefix for such grandiose numbers, and “flops” is an abbreviation of “floating-point operations per second.”

For comparison, my laptop computer is capable of about 124 gigaflops, or 124 billion calculations per second, which sounds fast.

According to the TOP500 list, today’s fastest supercomputer is Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Summit, which tops out at a measured 148.6 petaflops — about one million times faster than my laptop.

However, Summit is a mere welterweight relative to an exascale supercomputer, which is more than 60 times faster.

To put that speed in perspective, if you took all the calculations a modern laptop can perform in a single second, and instead did the arithmetic non-stop with pencil and paper at a rate of one calculation per second, it would take roughly 3,932 years to finish.

In a single second, a supercomputer capable of 1 exaflops could do a series of calculations that would take about 31.7 billion years by hand.

GPUs

While colloquially a supercomputer is referred to as a single entity, it is actually composed of thousands of servers — or compute nodes — connected by a dedicated high-speed network.

You might assume that an exascale supercomputer could be built simply by using 60 times more compute nodes than today’s fastest supercomputer; however, the cost, power consumption, and other constraints make this approach nearly impossible.

A supercomputer node packs an enormous amount of number-crunching power. (Argonne National Laboratory)

Fortunately, computer scientists have an ace up their sleeves, known as a GPU accelerator.

Graphics processing units (GPUs) are the professional-grade cousins of the graphics card in your personal computer and are capable of performing arithmetic at a rate of several teraflops (ie. really, really fast). And a feasible route to exascale can be realized by not only making supercomputers larger but also denser.

Sporting six extremely powerful GPUs per compute node, Argonne National Laboratory’s Aurora will follow this approach. Scheduled to come online in 2021, Aurora will be the first exascale supercomputer in North America — although the title of first in the world may go to China’s Tianhe-3, which is slated to power up sometime in 2020.

Several other machines in the U.S., China, Europe and Japan are scheduled to be brought to life soon after Aurora, using similar architectures

What exactly does one do with all that computing power? Change the world, of course.

Exascale supercomputers will allow researchers to tackle problems which were impossible to simulate using the previous generation of machines, due to the massive amounts of data and calculations involved.

Small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) design, wind farm optimization and cancer drug discovery are just a few of the applications that are priorities of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Exascale Computing Project. The outcomes of this project will have a broad impact and promise to fundamentally change society, both in the U.S. and abroad.

An artist’s rendering of the Aurora exascale supercomputer, scheduled to come online in 2021. (Argonne National Laboratory)

Exascale and Canada

So why isn’t Canada building one?

One reason is that exascale supercomputers come with a pretty steep sticker price. The contracts for the American machines are worth more than $500 million US each. On the other side of the Atlantic, the EU signed off on €1 billion for their own exascale supercomputer.

While the U.S. and Europe have much larger populations, the annual per capita spending on large-scale computing projects demonstrates how much Canada is lagging in terms of investment. The U.S. DOE alone will spend close to $1 billion US on its national supercomputing facilities next year, a number which does not take into account spending by other federal organizations, such as the U.S. National Science Foundation.

In comparison, Compute Canada — the national advanced research computing consortium providing supercomputing infrastructure to Canadian researchers — has a budget that is closer to $114 million Cdn.

In its 2018 budget submission, Compute Canada clearly lays out what it will take to bring our country closer to the forefront of supercomputing on the world stage. Included is the need for increasing the annual national spending on advanced research computing infrastructure to an estimated $151 million — a 32 per cent increase from where it is now. Given cost of the American exascale supercomputers, this is likely a conservative estimate.

However, the need for an exascale supercomputer in Canada does not seem to be on the radar of the decision-makers in the federal and provincial governments.

Hanlon’s razor would suggest that this is not due to some sinister plot by politicians to punish the nation’s computer geeks; rather, our politicians likely don’t fully understand the benefits of investing in the technology.

For example, the recent announcement by the premiers of Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick to collaborate on aggressively developing Canada’s small modular reactor (SMR) technology failed to mention the need for advanced computing resources. In contrast, corresponding U.S. DOE projects explicitly state that they will require exascale computing resources to meet their objectives.

This visualization, part of an extremely complex simulation of a Large Hadron Collider event, was done using existing supercomputing resources at Argonne National Laboratory. Aurora will be capable of even more complex computational jobs. (Taylor Childers/Argonne National Laboratory)

Why should the Canadian government — and you — care?

For the less altruistic, a benefit of supercomputing research is “trickle-down electronics.” The quiet but persistent legacy of the space race is technology like the microwave oven found in most kitchens. Similarly, the technological advances necessary to achieve exascale computing will also lead to lower-cost and more energy-efficient laptops, improved high-definition computer graphics, and prevalent AI in our connected devices.

But more importantly for Canada, how we invest our federal dollars says a lot about what we value as a nation.

It’s a statement about how we value the sciences. Do we want to attract world-class researchers to our universities? Do we want Canada to be a leader in climate research, renewable energy and medical advances?

It’s also a statement about how much we value Canadian businesses and innovation.

The user-facility model of the U.S. DOE provides businesses with access to singular resources, which gives American companies a competitive advantage in the world marketplace. Compute Canada has a similar mandate, and given the large number of startup companies and emerging industries in Canada, we leave our economy on an unequal footing without significant investments in advanced computing infrastructure.

Ultimately, supercomputers are apolitical: they can just as easily be used for oil exploration as wind farming. Their benefits can be applied across the economy and throughout society to develop new products and solve problems.

At a time when Canada seems so divided, building an exascale computer is the kind of project we need to bring the country together.

[Note: The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official policy or position of Argonne National Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Energy or the U.S. government.]


  • This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

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Heat warning still in place for large swaths of central and eastern Canada

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Five provinces across central and eastern Canada continued to swelter in unseasonably hot conditions on Sunday, Environment Canada said as it extended a widespread heat warning into a second day.

The warning from the national weather agency covered broad swaths of southern Ontario, southern Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

Monica Vaswani, a meteorologist with Environment Canada, says the size of the heat wave, while notable, is not unprecedented.

“When we do get heat events it’s basically due to warm air advections, or essentially an area of warm or hot air that’s moving up from the south into northern parts — the Canadian provinces,” she said in a telephone interview. “It’s not uncommon to see large swaths of that hot, moist air mass.”

Environment Canada says maximum temperatures are expected to reach or surpass 30 C and hit the low forties when combined with humidity.

Humid conditions are expected to be even more prevalent in the Atlantic provinces, Vaswani said.

“It would definitely be more humid in the maritime provinces because of the additional moisture provided by the ocean,” she said.

Sunday’s forecast from Environment Canada called for overnight temperatures in the low to mid-twenties, offering little relief from the daytime heat.

Cooler temperatures are forecast for Monday, although parts of Nova Scotia could continue to feel the overwhelming heat well into the day.

On the other side of the country, part of the British Columbia interior is also in the midst of a hot stretch that is expected to last until Tuesday.

And this is likely not the last of the heat events, at least not for Ontario, Vaswani noted.

“Some indications are suggesting that temperatures throughout the remainder of the month of August, aside from the coming week, may be slightly above normal, so that would indicate the potential for additional heat events to occur before the summer’s over,” she said.

During these extremely hot and humid periods, residents are advised to watch for signs of heat illness such as swelling, cramps and fainting, and to drink plenty of water, stay in a cool place and check on older family, friends and neighbours.

Summer-like conditions will likely linger into the fall season, Vaswani said.

“Given the trend that we’ve seen over the last couple of years, it does seem that our summers are generally starting a little bit later and lingering into at least September, even mid- to late-September, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we see something similar this year,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 7, 2022.

 

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Many federal government employees balking at returning to offices – CBC News

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The federal government is facing pushback from employees reluctant to return to government offices after more than two years working from home.

Online forums for public servants have exploded in recent weeks with comments about the prospect of returning to offices, with employees comparing notes on the hybrid work plans each department is planning to adopt.

One comment by a Health Canada manager urging employees to return to the office, in part, to provide employees at a nearby Subway restaurant with more hours, blew up into a series of sarcastic memes online. 

A meme of Marie Antoinette.
A comment by a Health Canada manager urging employees to return to the office, in part, so that employees at a local Subway restaurant would get more hours sparked an explosion of memes in online discussions among federal workers. (Screen capture from Canada’s Federal Public Service on Reddit)

Public service unions say that while some employees want to return to working in government offices or are happy with a hybrid arrangement, a majority want to keep working from home as Canada experiences a seventh wave of COVID-19.

“We have done studies of our membership that show that 60 per cent of our members would prefer to stay in a work from home situation, 25 per cent would like to do a hybrid and 10 per cent would like to come back to the office full time,” said Jennifer Carr, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which represents about 70,000 workers, including scientists and computer specialists.

Union wants remote work included in collective agreements

Carr said the union has been flooded with messages from concerned members.

“I would say that our inbox is now 90 per cent about return to the office, how people are not feeling comfortable, how they have questions about masking requirements, about the need and the necessity to come into the office when they can work in the safety of their own home and do the work efficiently.”

WATCH | Treasury Board president on federal employees‘ return to work:

Treasury Board president Mona Fortier on the future of work in the public service

22 hours ago

Duration 1:53

Treasury Board president Mona Fortier explains the steps the government is taking to adopt a hybrid work environment where many employees will work part of the time from offices and part of the time from their homes.

Greg Phillips, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE), which has called for a suspension of the return to the office, said his members have long favoured hybrid work. They feel the return to the office is being rushed and that their concerns aren’t being addressed, he said. 

CAPE has more than 20,000 members including economists, translators, employees of the Library of Parliament and civilian members of the RCMP.

“By and large, the people that don’t want to go back into the office have been fairly vocal about it,” said Phillips.

“They haven’t even addressed … in a lot of cases, accommodation needs.”

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) — the largest federal government union, with nearly 230,000 members — is calling on the government to be flexible about bringing employees back into the office and to address their anxieties.

“We know that most of our members are still working remotely, and many want to continue having that flexibility,” the union said in a statement. “Remote work has become a part of everyday life for many workers and we’ll continue to fight to enshrine it in our collective agreements during this round of bargaining with Treasury Board and agencies.”

‘Hybrid work is here to stay’: Treasury Board

In an interview with CBC News, Treasury Board president Mona Fortier said hybrid work is the future of the federal public service. She said it is up to each department or agency to figure out how to make it work while keeping employees safe and getting the job done.

“Hybrid work is here to stay,” said Fortier. “So we need to really understand that hybrid work will be part of how we deliver programs and services to Canadians. I know that a lot of people believe that COVID is gone, but we’re still in a COVID space.”

The latest debate over where public servants should work was sparked by a memo from Privy Council Clerk Janice Charette on June 29, urging public service managers to develop hybrid models of work that meet the operational requirements of their departments.

“Now is the time for us to test new models with a view to full implementation in the fall, subject to public health conditions,” she wrote.

Charette said hybrid work models offer “meaningful opportunities” such a more nationally distributed workforce and more flexibility for employees while bringing people back together in an office has benefits such as enhanced generation of ideas, knowledge transfer and building a strong public service culture.

Different plans for different federal departments

That memo prompted managers to start ramping up plans for employees to start to return to government offices after Labour Day and contacting employees to formalize how many days they would be expected to work from the office.

Union leaders say the result has been a patchwork quilt with some departments telling employees to return to the office several days a week while others are more flexible.

They say the wide range of policies is also resulting in some departments trying to poach the best and the brightest talent from other departments by offering more work from home flexibility and employees seeking transfers to departments more open to working from home.

Still others are considering leaving the federal public service, rather than return to government offices.

In online forums such as Canada’s Federal Public Service on Reddit, public servants have been comparing information about return-to-office plans. While a handful support the move, many are sharply critical of the plan to bring employees back into offices, the way it is being rolled out or who is being selected to return to the office.

A man looks out a window
Greg Phillips, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, says his union members have long favoured hybrid work but feel the current return-to-office plan is too rushed. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

In some cases, commenters reported being told to return to the office only to spend their time in video conference meetings.

“Commuting an hour a day to see no one I work with and communicate almost exclusively with (MS) Teams and email is utterly pointless,” wrote one.

“There’s the email from our ESDC DM — expected in the office at least some of the time,” wrote another. “Excuse me while I scream obscenities into the void.”

Some complained their department announced one plan – only to change it.

“We were asked to sign telework agreements, in which full time telework was one of the options,” said one commenter who said they worked at the Justice Department. “And now, suddenly, full time telework is off the table and it’s a two day in office minimum.”

Risk of contracting COVID-19 a concern for some

“They pretty much told us we wouldn’t be forced back if we didn’t want to,” responded one commenter who said they worked at Statistics Canada. “Now minimum two days starting Sept. 12.”

For others, the concern is the risk of catching COVID-19 from a co-worker or the working conditions in some government office.

Leaders such as Phillips say the comments on forums like Reddit are in line with what they are hearing from their members.

“You see all sorts of government employees comparing notes between what one department is doing and another department is doing and it’s creating mass confusion.”

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A secret no more: Canada's 1st codebreaking unit comes out of the shadows – CBC.ca

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For years, Sylvia Gellman’s loved ones were left in the dark about what she did for a living in the early 1940s. 

But in a mansion that once sat along Laurier Avenue East, Gellman and her colleagues — many of whom were women — worked to assist a top secret mission: cracking codes and ciphers used in secret and diplomatic communications during the Second World War.   

“No one outside knew what we were doing,” the 101-year-old told CBC Ottawa on Saturday.

“You were so aware of it being a secret mission. And you didn’t tell anybody. And I followed that very closely. I didn’t even tell my family.”

On Saturday morning, a plaque honouring the Examination Unit, Canada’s first cryptographic bureau, was unveiled at the Laurier House National Historic Site, next door to where Gellman once worked.

The house was also the residence of William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s prime minister during the Second World War.

Gellman said while her loved ones knew she had a top-secret job, they hardly understood the breadth of her work. Those duties included typing out decoded Japanese messages before they were rushed to what was then called the Department of External Affairs. 

Intelligence was also shared with the British government’s Bletchley Park, a centre of Allied code-breaking where names like Alan Turing walked the halls

Sylvia Gellman said while her family knew she had an important job during the Second World War, she kept its precise nature a closely guarded secret. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

Having the unit’s contributions to Canada officially marked with a plaque was something of a pandemic project for Diana Pepall, who’s researched the bureau since 2014. 

It’s no surprise that so few people know about the efforts of Gellman and her coworkers, Pepall said. 

“When they left, they all got a memo saying, ‘Just because war is over and you’re no longer working here, you’re not allowed to talk about this for the rest of your life.'” she said. “I’ve seen the actual memo.” 

One woman Pepall found during her research said that two years of her mother’s life had always been unaccounted for — until they were filled in by the researcher’s efforts.

“The mother was right there, and then gave a 20-minute speech that nobody had ever heard before on her work at the Examination Unit,” Pepall said. 

Researcher Diana Pepall said the Examination Unit helped the nation become more independent of Britain. She’s been looking into the bureau since 2014. (Joseph Tunney/CBC )

Helped strengthen Canada’s independence

The unit’s success also marked an important milestone in Canada’s independence within the intelligence community.

In some ways, the Examination Unit grew into the Communications Security Establishment (CSE): the national cryptologic agency that provides the federal government with information technology security and foreign signals intelligence. Many employees went from one secretive organization to another, said Erik Waddell, who also works for CSE.

“The codebreaking work they did during the war proved, not only to our allies, but to Canadian government officials and ministers and the prime minister, that there was in fact a value in Canada having its own independent intelligence gathering ability,” he said. 

“[It also proved] that it was worth preserving that capacity after the war.”

The work of Gellman and others, Waddell said, also “helped build, foster and maintain” partnerships with its allies, something that’s been crucial to the establishment of Five Eyes, a key intelligence-sharing alliance on today’s world stage.

For Gellman, the Examination Unit was more than just her place of work: it was a second home where she met two lifelong friends. 

Having lost a brother in the war, Gellman said she understood her job’s importance and was proud to work at the cryptographic bureau.

“I felt the whole thing was amazing, what was going on,” she said. “I really did.”

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