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Meet HOLL-I: NCSA Unveils New Artificial Intelligence Machine

Cerebras front pattern on their systems can be seen overlaid in the sky of NPCF in hues of orange/purple.

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) has officially launched a new supercomputer targeted at the training of large artificial intelligence (AI) models on extreme-scale datasets. HOLL-I, or Highly Optimized Logical Learning Instrument, uses the new Cerebras Systems CS-2 Wafer Scale Engine, providing an at-cost resource for machine-learning training algorithms for researchers and industry. For a limited time, NCSA is offering a discretionary trial-use period for new applicants.

Deep learning research needs are growing ever larger with high loads of detailed and unwieldy files. Given these massive datasets, often heavy with imagery or text, HOLL-I specifically reduces the load times and distance to memory for computationally taxing programs. While NCSA has other compute resources, such as Delta, Hal, DGX, Campus Cluster and Radiant, HOLL-I’s architecture is built to handle machine-learning jobs at intense speeds that will cut down on compute time and lower overall costs while obtaining excellent performance results.

The HOLL-I system is a great example of the evolution of computing to specialized systems for important classes of applications.

William Gropp, NCSA director

Part of the creation of HOLL-I is about the story of NCSA’s Industry Partners program. For more than 30 years, a central part of NCSA’s work has been to create and reinforce a bond between academics and industry. Foundational research is difficult and risky in the private sector, requiring massive investment that is not always borne out with identifiable profit. Allowing some of that risk to pass to academics, whose goal is purely to advance science, creates an ideal environment for experimentation. Then, adding in the targeted needs of NCSA’s industrial partners provides a needed impetus for innovation.

“Our innovative industry partnership has made this amazing system for machine learning and other applications available to Illinois researchers, and I am looking forward to seeing how this accelerates research at Illinois,” said Gropp.

Brendan McGinty, associate director of the Industry Partners program, played a key role in getting the CS-2 onto the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. NCSA maintains a close relationship with our corporate players, and McGinty, working closely with Seid Koric, technical assistant director, keeps a finger on the pulse of technological innovation. When Cerebras announced the CS-1, NCSA started getting feedback that having the raw AI computing power of such a unit would be a significant advancement.

A research study was commissioned, a proposal drafted – all while McGinty kept close contact with NCSA’s industry partners, some of whom had already begun trial uses of the CS-1. With a clear path forward, NCSA began working with Cerebras Systems to get its latest upgrade to the CS architecture, the CS-2.

Image of the WSE, Wafer-Scale Engine, courtesy of Cerebras Systems
Image of the WSE, Wafer-Scale Engine, courtesy of Cerebras Systems

Historically, the standard supercomputer has filled up entire rooms. Powering those computers and keeping them at the right temperature in the cleanest, dust-free environments used megawatts of power from both the computers and the associated cooling devices. But with the CS-2 unit being relatively contained, its own massive cooling tank and specialized node-to-memory architecture, huge power savings are expected per unit of productivity on HOLL-I. Not only does that allow HOLL-I to perform jobs more quickly, but it leaves a physically smaller footprint than the racks on racks of blades that take up space in supercomputing facilities around the globe.

HOLL-I is unique in the NCSA’s AI computing space in that we will have multiple clusters at NCSA that address the various levels of AI and machine-learning needs. Delta and HAL, our DGX providing resources, and now HOLL-I with the CS-2 as the go-to resource for AI jobs. Each system is at the correct scale for the various types of usage and all systems having access to our shared center-wide TAIGA filesystem eliminating delays and slowdowns caused by data migration as users move up the ladder of more intense machine-learning computations.

Volodymyr Kindratenko, director of the Center for Artificial Intelligence Innovation at NCSA

NCSA offers HOLL-I as a machine-learning supercomputer available to all. Following in the footsteps of previous systems that NCSA has deployed for industry and for special research needs, HOLL-I is available to researchers, public or private, at cost.

“Cerebras is an ‘appliance’ that is part of a larger computing ecosystem, said Gropp. While the CS-2 can be programmed to perform other computations, training for machine learning is the core application, and one that, because of the broad and growing use of machine-learning, is important enough to tune a system to that specific task. By integrating HOLL-I into our center-wide file system, users can take advantage of other systems for today’s complex workflows.”

HOLL-I and NCSA aren’t in this “computing ecosystem” alone. Having HOLL-I at NCSA is a net benefit to the university and the state as well. Not only do local corporate partners benefit, but HOLL-I offers the speed to reduce R&D expenses for companies nationwide. The type of machine learning for which HOLL-I will be dedicated has already accomplished much for NCSA corporate partners, creating models and simulations that enhance efficiency and reduce waste, saving millions of dollars. Per McGinty, NCSA brings “faster, more accurate, deeper solutions and results to the world’s grandest challenges. What that translates to is return on investment.”

Learn More About HOLL-I

  • See our resources page and our project highlights page.
  • Email Volodymyr Kindratenko for more information
  • Email NCSA Help to start the onboarding process
  • Visit the HOLL-I site as tutorials and documentation become available
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