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UK Prime Minister wants £800M to spend on big British iron

The people can eat turnips, Sunak wants a super... computer.

Analysis This week British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak unveiled his Science and Technology Framework, and one of the first projects could be a massive supercomputer to rival the US's top ranked Frontier system — assuming he can find the money to pay for it.

Citing multiple sources familiar with the matter, Bloomberg reports that the British Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt, had begun reviewing proposals to invest as much as £800 million — circa $950 million — to build a supercomputer.

Supercomputers, as Reg readers know, are used by governments for a variety of scientific and military applications ranging from the maintenance and safe storage of nuclear armament to climate modeling, fundamental physics, and drug discovery to name just a few.

While Sunak's super wasn't mentioned in the framework published earlier this week, the prime minister's newly formed Department of Science, Innovation, and Technology has reportedly drawn up plans for Big British Iron. One of the more notable provisions, is that the machine would reportedly be built by UK firms and using chips and systems provided by British chipmakers, under a plan that would reinvest those funds into the local tech economy.

This is notable since it would seem to preclude US-based HPE and French HPC vendor Atos from being part of the deal. These two companies are responsible for building many of the most powerful supercomputers in the world. And assuming the £800 million is the actual cost of the machine, the proposed super would be immense, potentially dwarfing the US Frontier supercomputer, which currently holds the number-one spot on the Top500, at $600 million.

While it's not clear who would ultimately assemble the machine, or even who would supply the components, one possibility is British startup Graphcore.

The company is already working on an AI supercomputer called the Good Machine, named for British mathematician Irving John Good, who worked alongside Alan Turing. And as our sister site The Next Platform rather morbidly pointed out, Good also predicted that artificial intelligence would lead to the downfall of the human race and ultimately our extinction.

However, the Good machine, at 10 exaflops of "AI performance" — not to be confused with the exaflop of FP64 performance achieved by the Frontier system — is relatively cheap at an estimated cost of $120 million compared to what Sunak apparently has in mind.

Another possibility is that the proposed system will opt for British cores if not silicon — perhaps with a sticker that reads "Designed in Britain, Assembled in the USA or Japan" And that means using an Arm-based processor.

The British chip designer has steadily expanded its portfolio to address datacenter, cloud, and HPC applications. And Arm also has a pretty good track record when it comes to supercomputers. Riken's number-two ranked Fugaku system uses Fujitsu's Arm-based A64FX processor. Another potential supplier could be Nvidia. Despite being an American company, Nvidia not only has a long history of high-performance computing, but also uses Arm's CPU cores — specifically the Neoverse V2 architecture — in its Grace and Grace-Hopper superchips.

The latter systems could conceivably be built domestically as Nvidia has already developed reference designs for its Grace-based HGX systems.

Of course, all of this is assuming that Sunak can find the cash to pay for such a machine. Bloomberg notes that the British Treasury has yet to sign off on the funding. The publication cited several, unnamed persons who indicated that talks between the Department of Science and Technology and the Treasury were ongoing. Another source said it was unlikely that a resolution would be found in time for next week's annual budget.

Sunak's technological ambitions could also face backlash from the British people who, faced with rising inflation and supply chain shortages at the market, were reportedly told by British Environment Secretary Therese Coffey to eat turnips instead. ®

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