Teaching: 10 min
Exercises: 0 min
  • What is High Performance Computing?

  • Why should I be using High Performance Computing for my research?

  • Don’t I need to know how to program to use High Performance Computing?

  • Understand what an HPC is.

  • Understand how HPC can improve your research efficiency.

  • Understand the ‘barrier to entry’ is lower than you’d think.

What is a High Performance Computation?

High Performance Computing, known commonly as HPC or HPRC, is the name given to the use of computers with capabilities beyond the scope of standard desktop computers. The computers that qualify as HPC systems are typically seen as being more powerful than other systems; usually because they have more central processing units (CPUs), CPUs that operate at higher speeds, more memory, more storage, and faster connections with other computer systems. HPC systems are used when the resources of more standard computers, such as most dektops and laptops, are not enough to provide results in a timely fashion, if at all.

A Cluster of Computers?

Most frequently, HPC systems are an interconnected network or cluster or many CPU’s. Each CPU can perform many tasks simultaneously. By distributing "jobs" across many CPU’s, hundreds or thousands of tasks can be performed in parallel.

How do we interact with HPC’s?

Working with HPC systems involves the use of a "UNIX shell" through a command line interface (CLI). A UNIX shell is a program which passes user instructions to other programs and returns results to the user or other programs. The user can pass the shell instructions interactively via typing them, or programatically by executing scripts. The most popular UNIX shell is Bash, the Bourne Again Shell, which we will be using to interact with the HPC. As HPC users we need an understanding of basic UNIX commands, which will be the initial focus of this lesson.

Although users can work interactively with HPC systems, it is more common (and better practice) to perform most tasks via submitting "jobs". A job consists of commands which request HPC resources and specify a task to be completed. Jobs are prioritised and placed in a queue by a "job scheduler" before being executed.

Why use an HPC?

HPC systems are designed specifically to assist researchers with analytically demanding tasks. Users can perform many small tasks simultaneously, such as projecting a single model onto datasets from different years. This is an example of “serial programming”, where each task is entirely independent from the others. Alternatively, with the assistance of Message Passing Interfaces (MPI’s), users can combine multiple CPU resources to perform a single task more efficiently. This is an example of “parallel programming”, where each CPU is working on a portion of single task, before results are assembled in the correct order by an MPI. The benefits of using HPC systems for research often far outweigh the cost of learning to use a Shell and include:

Example: Nelle’s Pipeline: Starting Point

Consider the case of Nelle Nemo, a marine biologist, who has returned from a six-month survey of the North Pacific Gyre, where she has been sampling gelatinous marine life in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. She collected 10,000 samples in all, and has run each sample through an assay machine that measures the abundance of 300 different proteins. The machine’s output for a single sample is a file with one line for each protein. For example, the file NENE01812A.csv looks like this:


Each line consists of two “fields”, separated by a comma (,). The first field identifies the protein, and the second field is a measure of the amount of protein in the sample. Nelle needs to accomplish tasks such as the following:

  1. For any given file, extract the amount of a given protein.
  2. Find the maximum amount of a given protein across all files.
  3. For each file, run a program called stats.py that she wrote, which produces a graph, and writes some statistics (these go in the directories plots/ and results/ respectively.)

Suppose that each file takes about a minute to analyze on her desktop system and consuming all of the resources available, so no email or any other work while the program is running. With 10,000 files in all this means that it will take approximately 166 hours, or just under 7 days to completely process all the files.

Shifting this work to an HPC system will not only stand to speed up the processig of these files but the processing will importantly allow Nelle to continue to use her own computer for other work.

Key Points