Origins: Linking Science and Industry
EPCC’s origins date back to the early 1980s when researchers, principally in the Department of Physics, began to buy and use parallel computers for their research. It was 1987, however, before one of the key features of EPCC began to emerge: the linkage between academic science and industrial projects. In that year we put together a successful bid to two former UK government bodies, the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), to buy one of the very first transputer-based computers from Meiko Ltd. This machine, the so-called Edinburgh Concurrent Supercomputer (ECS), gradually grew to be one of the largest such parallel computers in the world. During this period, the Edinburgh Regional Computing Centre (ERCC, now EUCS) provided both systems support and project management for projects with companies such as Barclay’s Bank and British Gas.
In 1990 the growing awareness of the importance of parallel computing resulted in research funding for five posts – and EPCC was founded with the mission statement “to accelerate the exploitation of parallel computing through industry, commerce and academia”, developing simulation software to run on parallel computers, as well as proving consultancy services and training. It was staffed primarily by physicists who wanted to advance their theoretical research and also embraced the idea of working with industry partners – for example Barclays Bank and British Gas, two of our earliest clients.
Rise of the Machines
1991 brought two events that established EPCC in the form we see today: winning £3.5M from DTI/SERC to leverage industry projects; and the arrival of the CM-200 machine. The former was important for two reasons: it compelled us to put in place a highly-structured industrial programme, and it provided funding for the Centre to grow very rapidly. The CM-200 was not simply the fastest, highest-profile computer in the UK, it also caused us to define explicitly our win-win-win strategy of working with academia, industrial end-users and the computer manufacturers for mutual benefit.
Despite providing more computer power to UK scientists than anyone else, EPCC was still considered by many to be a somewhat junior partner in the HPC scene. Then in 1994 SERC announced that EPCC was to host a 256-processor Cray T3D, at the time Europe’s fastest supercomputer. EPCC was truly on the map as a major international force in HPC.
At the end of 1996 EPCC was selected to host a Cray T3E system dedicated to particle physics research operating on behalf of PPARC, EPSRC and NERC. The service on the T3E ran until 2001.
In 2002 EPCC became lead partner in the HPCx consortium, supporting the national supercomputing service for UK academic research and in 2008, it became the host for HECToR, a second national service, funded to the tune of £115 million over six years, until 2014. It now hosts the £43m ARCHER national supercomputing service. EPCC also runs the Computational Science and Engineering support service for ARCHER.
Discover more about the evolution of High Performance Computing at EPCC here.
Commercialising the science base
There is a great deal more to EPCC, however, than hosting big HPC platforms. It is our interaction with industry and academia which places us in a unique position to transfer technology.
EPCC has carried out industrial technology transfer projects with well over 400 companies since 1991. This work started with the DTI/SERC-supported Parallel Applications Programme. Under this scheme EPCC worked with some of the UK’s big engineering companies such as Rolls-Royce, AEA Technology and British Aerospace. Most of the work was in developing simulation software to run on parallel computers.
In 1995, two spin-out companies were formed to productise the results of some of our development projects. In 1996/7 we became widely recognised as the leading HPC centre in Europe, and also were declared by Scottish Enterprise as the best example of commercialisation of the science base in Scotland.
EPCC has since worked on a host of industrial projects covering just about every imaginable type of business – from local SMEs to blue-chip multi-nationals – and many different technologies.
EPCC is also involved in collaborative industrial research, most recently with SGI, NVIDIA and Intel to name but a few.
Education and Training
As well as its work with industry, EPCC has a long history of providing services to scientists. We hosted a European Commission-funded visitor programme called TRACS for a decade, through which over 400 researchers were able to use our HPC systems to further their research. TRACS was replaced by HPC-Europa 2004-2012, during which period EPCC hosted more than 800 research visits.
EPCC also offers training courses on a variety of subjects, and has contributed over the years to standards efforts such as MPI. In 2001 EPCC introduced one of the world’s first MSc degrees in HPC which has proved popular and highly successful. We also now run an MSc in HPC with Data Science.
EPCC’s strength is continuing to identify at an early stage the computing technologies that will be important in the future. We are doing now what we have always done; providing expertise for the technologies of today while looking to the horizon for those of tomorrow.
Today EPCC employs around 85 staff in total and is led by its Director Professor Mark Parsons. On the 1st of August 2016, EPCC formally changed its status to become a Centre reporting to the College of Science & Engineering.