Address by Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, Derek Hanekom at the official opening of the high performance computing facility, North West University, Potchefstroom
26 Oct 2009
Vice-Chancellor Dr Theuns Eloff
Professor van Niekerk
Rectors and Vice-Rectors of the North West University’s Mafikeng, Potchefstroom and Vaal Triangle campuses
Researchers, staff and managers
Ladies and gentlemen
We all probably remember the days when a programme was something you saw on TV, a hard drive was rushing between Mafikeng and Potchefstroom in a 4 x 4 and a web was something with a spider in it.
It wasn’t all that long ago, but even those of us who had prior warning were unprepared for the radical way computers have changed our lives. Who would have imagined how ubiquitous they would become? There are computers in refrigerators, in shoes, and in toys. Today, many of our students can get on to the internet in a matter of seconds on their cell phones, and access a wealth of information that would have been quite inconceivable even 10 years ago. Computers have increased our capacity to think; to conceive, explore reason, deduce and progress more rapidly and more effectively than ever before.
Theoretically speaking, the internet has turned all those linked by the World Wide Web into one gigantic supercomputer. But that’s not quite how it works, as you know. The internet, on its own, cannot make a meaningful contribution to our country’s research and development needs.
And since research and development is so essential to the attainment of our socio-economic objectives, we need to look to the abilities of computers to accelerate our work. That is why the concept of high performance computing is so welcome and why I am so pleased to be here to open this facility which adds another building block to our capability to compete at the forefront of progress.
To be successful, current and emerging research techniques increasingly require access to powerful computing capabilities. High performance computing capabilities have become a critical requirement in many fields of research, in which it is impossible to remain competitive without access to high performance computing (HPC) facilities.
From government’s point of view, the main objectives are, of course, to enhance South Africa’s globally competitive position and to help accelerate Africa’s socio-economic upliftment through the effective application of high-end cyber infrastructure.
These objectives are attainable, but only if they are supported by relevant advanced e-research techniques in R&D efforts both academic and business-focused in all aspects of science, engineering, technology, medicine, finance and the humanities.
High performance computing ranks as one of three primary pillars in the national cyber infrastructure intervention that we support at the Department of Science and Technology. The South African National Research Network and very large databases programmes complement the HPC effort through the provision of high-speed, high-bandwidth connectivity, and the effective management of a variety of notably large databases.
The HPC field deals with the cutting edge of computing technology. It incorporates processing, networking, storage and visualisation, and is a critical enabler in numerous applications that advance the frontiers of science from the simulation of nuclear reactions to data mining the human genome.
Supercomputers are by no means a new development in South Africa. Researchers and businesses have been exploiting the potential of large vector and symmetric multi-processing computers for decades. But the rise of commodity component-based cluster computing in the mid 1990s made HPC more affordable and a growing number of our university departments, together with commercial and industrial R&D teams, are using high performance computing. As you know, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) supported the establishment of the centre for high performance computing in Cape Town, which aims to provide users with access to world-class HPC infrastructure while championing a programme of advanced skills development in this area.
This will support research initiated in other areas, such as our bid to host the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope, the National Bioinformatics Network, the Global Earth Observation System of Systems and other international initiatives, including the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.
It is a great achievement for the North-West University that you are equipping yourselves with the competitive tools to realize the full value of your academic endeavours, the strength of your ideas and the power of your collaborations. This new HPC resource will enable your university to remain one of the top research institutions in the country and extend its capacity to deliver excellent research.
I understand that you have already implemented two HPC clusters for enterprise-wide usage the Production HPC, which has so far successfully completed nearly 1 700 research jobs; and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research-NWU Cluster, which has been doing sterling work for the languages department and has, to date, completed over 22 000 research assignments.
North West University is now actively participating in the implementation of the national cyber infrastructure strategy and has become one of the first active nodes in the South African high performance computing grid (which is the next-generation HPC network). It has cooperated with other leading HPC facilities in South Africa to form the joint research unit to manage the South African HPC Grid. I congratulate you on these initiatives. Feedback from researchers using the facility, from the schools of chemistry, physics, mechanical engineering and languages, among others, has been unanimously positive. This is a tremendous start.
Some people believe that in the future computers will be more important to progress than people are. Maybe so, but that was certainly not Pablo Picasso’s view. “Computers are useless,” he said, “All they give you is answers.”
We need to understand what computers can do and cannot do, and have the skills to use this powerful technology to help make the world a better place for everyone. And our desire to use the power of the computer to solve the problems of the world is not something we get from a computer programme. To quote Ted Nelson, “The good news about computers is that they do what you tell them to do. The bad news about computers is that they do what you tell them to do.”
So let’s use this impressive facility to fast-track the process of improving the quality of life of all our citizens. This should never be interpreted, though, as straight-jacketing our researchers. There must be room for experimentation and even some eccentricity. Ludwig Wittgenstein would certainly have supported this philosophy. This was his assertion, “If people never did silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done.”
On that note, let me congratulate the North West University for this exciting initiative, which will not only enhance your own research capabilities, but takes us one more step forward in putting our country on the map as a world leader in research excellence.
It gives me great pleasure to declare this facility officially open.
Issued by: Department of Science and Technology
26 October 2009
Source: Department of Science and Technology (http://www.dst.gov.za/)
Issued by: Department of Science and Technology
26 Oct 2009
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