Published: 29.05.09
High Performance Computing

Monte Rosa – the peak of Swiss supercomputing

Less than three months after being given the go-ahead to upgrade their current facilities, the Swiss National Supercomputer Centre CSCS in Manno, Ticino, switched on the most powerful computer in Switzerland. The new supercomputer’s peak performance of 141.6 teraflops is higher than all of the computer clusters in Switzerland put together.

Simone Ulmer
The recently installed Monte Rosa super computer at CSCS (all photos: Michele De Lorenzi/CSCS)
The recently installed Monte Rosa super computer at CSCS (all photos: Michele De Lorenzi/CSCS) (large view)

The name of the supercomputer, “Monte Rosa”, refers to the famous Swiss-Italian mountainous massif , and it is quite fitting that it carries connotations of conquering the peaks when you realise that barely three months elapsed between ETH Zurich giving the go-ahead to upgrade its predecessor “Piz Palu”, and the new supercomputer being switched on. CSCS expects to declare the computer open for general access to its user community some time this week.

Quantum leap in super computing for Switzerland

In that short space of time, the Swiss National Computer Center made a quantum leap by its standards: the peak performance of the computer center increased more than eightfold. This makes CSCS one of the world’s leading computer centers in high performance computing (HPC) in terms of computer capacity. At CSCS, they are confident that “Monte Rosa” will finish in the top fifty at the international supercomputer conference in Hamburg this June, where the “Top 500” fastest computers in the world will be announced. Should it do so, it would also be a major leap forward in high performance computing for Switzerland as a whole.

Today, computer simulation is widely considered to be the third pillar of science together with theory and experiment, and high performance computers are essential tools for many of the most advanced and insightful simulations. Nowadays it is commonplace to find that many practical experiments conducted in the lab are supported by numerical experiments carried out on a computer. These simulations offer scientists an insight into important intermediate stages in processes that would often be incomprehensible – or even impossible to see at all – under a microscope or using other experimental methods. Many of the simulations that are carried out on these large machines involve scenarios that cannot be carried out experimentally, such as studying the process of galaxy formation or determining the structure of minerals in the extreme temperatures and pressures at the centre of the Earth. Drafting the climate scenarios of the future would also be impossible without simulations carried out on supercomputers.

Preparing for reception

In the run-up to “Monte Rosa’s” installation, the electrical infrastructure and the water-cooling system to support the new machine had to be created at CSCS in a very short time frame. Last week, the moment of truth finally came: an awning in front of CSCS sheltered the 30-ton cargo from the elements as it was delivered on four trucks. The twenty head-high cabinets that house the XT5 racks from the American company Cray were chaperoned by about a dozen electrical-engineers and computer construction specialists from the company, who worked round the clock to put the machine together.

Trials with “high-impact” projects

Almost a week on, 14,752 processors at CSCS are now capable of performing 141 trillion computer operations per second. This means that in one fell swoop CSCS has been able to increase its capacity enormously, and the scientific research community is now able to make use of this new machine which is currently more powerful than all of the computer clusters in Switzerland put together. As a consequence, researchers have now been called upon to submit so-called high-impact projects involving challenging simulations that they have had in the pipeline, but which had simply not been feasible in Switzerland until now due to a lack of sufficient large scale computer facilities.

CSCS is looking to use these projects to test just how powerful the machine is. Thomas Schulthess, Director of CSCS and Professor of Physics at ETH Zurich, has already received the Gordon Bell Prize for similar test runs conducted last year with the super computer “Jaguar” in Oak Ridge (see ETH Life article from 21.11.2008).

The next mountain already beckons

The CSCS team members are true summiteers always in search of the next peak to climb. No sooner had the new computer arrived than they were already planning the next upgrade. The national CSCS high performance computer center is aiming to provide its users with a petaflop computer capable of carrying out a quadrillion computer operations per second, giving it a peak performance similar to the machine that was inaugurated in Jülich, Germany, this week. “We are very enthusiastic about the possibility of pushing the boundaries of simulation-based science”, explains Thomas Schulthess. He stresses just how important it was that HPC was declared a national strategy in Switzerland (see ETH Life interview from 17.12.2008) and is happy that the Swiss University Conference (see ETH Life article from 6.5.2009), the state with its first stimulus package, and the ETH domain are backing the project and supporting it financially.


The Swiss National High-Performance Center (CSCS) was founded in 1991 by order of the state and has been run by ETH Zurich ever since. It provides its capacities for all national research institutions and thus works with both ETH institutes, the Swiss universities, the research establishments in the ETH domain, CERN and MeteoSwiss. The Monte Rosa super computer is funded by the state stimulus package, CSCS, grants from ETH Zurich and partly by the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI), which has secured a share of the computer in the process.

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