The universities of Southampton, Bristol, Oxford and University College London have joined forces with the e-Science Centre at Rutherford Appleton Laboratories, to form a new Centre of Innovation for the application of High Performance Computing.

The consortium of universities will share computing resources including hardware, software applications, support services and skills to encourage wider use of HPC in both academia and industry. It has been awarded a total of £3.7 million by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) for the creation and operation of the centre.

The lion's share of the funding (£2.2 million) has been awarded to the University of Southampton, to upgrade its Iridis3 supercomputer. A 12,000-core Intel Westmere-based architecture is now being installed, doubling its original performance and enabling more than 115 trillion calculations per second.

A second system, based on NVIDIA’s Tesla accelerator technology, will be hosted and operated by The Science and Technology Facilities Council’s e-Science division based at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratories. It will be capable of 247 trillion calculations per second.

“Simulation and computation enabled by high-performance computing are globally recognised as the ‘third pillar’ of modern research practice in both academia and industry,” said University of Southampton pro vice-chancellor, Professor Philip Nelson.

“Keeping pace with high-performance computing methods is critical in making sure the UK stays competitive in this field – and the investment in Southampton’s supercomputer upgrade, along with the future activities of the e-Infrastructure South Consortium, will substantially contribute to this.”

Dr Ian Stewart, director of Advanced Computing at the University of Bristol, said the HPC system at Southampton is very similar to Bristol's own BlueCrystal supercomputer, and will be used to provide extra capacity and capability to its community of 600 researchers and students.

HPC is currently used in a wide range of industries including quantum physics, weather forecasting, climate research, oil and gas exploration, molecular modelling, finance, engineering and manufacturing. Researchers at the School of Biochemistry in Bristol, for example, are using it to search for anti-cancer drugs that will prevent secondary tumours developing from breast cancer.

By using computer simulation to screen for suitable compounds, rather than undertaking exhaustive screening processes in the laboratory, the most promising compounds can be identified more quickly and become the focus of further research.

Dr Richard Sessions, a senior research fellow at the Bristol School of Biochemistry, said that the Centre of Innovation would allow scientists to collaborate with colleagues in maths and computer science to “understand how best to harness the massive parallelism of modern computer architectures and generate world-class science”.

The Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) recently allocated £165 million to HPC projects in the 2011/12 financial year. Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester last October, Chancellor George Osborne announced the government's intention to make the UK a world leader in supercomputing.

“Improving computing infrastructure is vital to driving growth and giving businesses confidence to invest in the UK,” Osborne said at the time.