Universiteit Leiden

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Green light for Leiden supercomputer

From simulations of galaxies to analyses of MRI scans: scientific research needs more and more computing power. Leiden University is planning to set up a completely new facility for high-performance computing. The green light was given officially on 20 June.

‘We are creating a point of no return for ourselves,' is how Vice-President of the Executive Board Martijn Ridderbos opened the meeting in the Faculty Club. Over recent years, a lot of preparatory work has been carried out and now the project to establish the Computing Facility for Excellent Research (CFER) has really started. In two years' time - when the new data centre at Leiden University is opened - the supercomputer has to be in place. Ridderbos: ‘We have to all we can to give our researchers the best possible facilities for their work. A new supercomputer, equipped with all the necessary infrastructure and support, will make it possible for them to do better research.' 

High-performance computing

There is close cooperation with the LUMC on this new facility. LUMC already has a facility for high-performance computing (HPC) that is used by researchers, but also for complex diagnostics in patient care. This HPC facility is by no means as powerful as the new CFER will be. 'The CFER offers possibilities for innovation, for more complex research questions, and also for education,’  commented Karel van Lambalgen, head of ICT at LUMC. ‘We want our students to learn to work with a supercomputer at as early a stage as possible.' 

Calculating the Universe

Professor of Numerical Star Dynamics Simon Portegies Zwart has the answer. 'The problem if you want to make calculations about the Universe is the enormous difference in scale: there is a factor of ten to the power of twenty difference in size. That's a ten with twenty zeros after it. But your own computer can only calculate to 16 decimals.'  Portegies Zwart demonstrates what that means using the three-body problem. The three-body problem aims to determine the orbit of three stars in relation to one another. 'Only a supercomputer has the calculating power to calculate this problem accurately and predict the orbit of the stars.' 

Automatically assessing MRI scans 

Another practical example comes from Lara Wierenga, a neurologist who is conducting research at the Leiden Institute of Psychology on brain development in children. She analyses many dozens or even hundreds of MRI scans of child brains. 'Children don't always lie still in the scanner, so the quality of each scan is not good enough to analyse.' To determine this, Wierenga and her colleagues had to check each scan by hand. 'Obviously, we wanted to automate thhis process, because it is very time-consuming.'  Using the supercomputer at the LUMC, Wierenga developed three models that could assess the scans automatically. 'Each model had to be tested on the almost 800 scans from our dataset. Using a local, more simple computer, this would have taken 1,569 days. With the HPC we got through it in 17 days.' Wierenga is looking forward to the new, even more powerful CFER. 'Our datasets are getting ever bigger: we have more and more candidates that we monitor over a longer period of time and so scans are made more often. If we have a better HPC facility, we can continue to compete with the leaders in our field.'  

Partnership with LUMC

Ridderbos stressed that the LUMC and the university want to combine forces. 'That's already happening and it will be sure to increase,' Van Lambalgen added. To put some strength behind the efforts, he and Rolf Oosterloo, director of Business Administration at the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Science, have signed a partnership agreement. In the coming two years, in parallel with working setting up the CFER, the shared use of the LUMC facility will be expanded. Ridderbos also wants to promote the joint use of the LUMC facility. He also aims to strengthen collaboration in the region. 'The first contacts have been made with TU Delft. To set uop a project as good as this one, and keep it up to date, continuous investments are needed. That's something we can best do together.'  

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