HLRS Focuses on Sustainability in Supercomputing at Nachhaltigkeitstag 2017

11 July 2017

As part of N!-Tage 2017, the High-Performance Computing Center Stuttgart (HLRS) organized an outreach event to present its sustainability efforts to the University of Stuttgart community.

Finding sustainable solutions has become an important concern in high-performance computing (HPC) because of the enormous resources it requires. The power consumed by a supercomputer like the one at HLRS can approach that of a small city, while keeping racks of electronic equipment from overheating demands cooling systems that use large volumes of water. From this perspective, improving efficiency, using ecologically responsible products, and undertaking other efforts to manage environmental and social impacts will all be needed to ensure that HPC can continue being a feasible tool for research and technology development.

Beginning in 2014, HLRS received funding from Baden Württemberg's Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts to launch a project called Sustainability in HPC Centers. In recognition of its success, the project was renewed in 2017. It has added an important dimension to the diverse research carried out at HLRS, contributing to environmentally responsible decision-making and improving working conditions at the center.

These activities at HLRS constitute one effort among many at the University of Stuttgart to address challenges that industrial societies face in remaining sustainable. From funded research programs to student clubs, interest in sustainable products and solutions permeates the campus, though in the past no concerted method existed for networking these activities. For this reason, the University's first Nachhaltigkeitstag (Sustainability Day) aimed to bring together initiatives focusing on sustainability, raise interest among students, and inspire them to pursue new ideas that could help in such efforts.

Networking Sustainability Efforts at the University

In a series of four lectures, specialists from across the University focused on sustainability challenges and solutions. In the first talk, Professor Dr.-Ing. Stefan Tenbohlen of the Institute of Power Transmission and High Voltage Technology (Institut für Energieübertragung und Hochspannungstechnik) described the progress that society has been making in transforming its energy generation to more sustainable sources, as well as some hurdles in clean energy generation and transmission that the Stuttgart region will need to surmount in order to meet international clean energy goals. Dipl.-Ing. Harald Hentze, Energy Manager at the University of Stuttgart, followed with a more locally focused presentation, explaining how the University manages and is attempting to reduce its energy footprint.

Norbert Conrad (l) and Ursula Paul (c) discuss HLRS's sustainability efforts with Prof. Peter Radgen.

The event was capped by lectures by Brigitte-Maria Lorenz and Ursula Paul — both members of the HLRS sustainability project — who described the sustainability initiatives the supercomputing center has undertaken.

Outside the lecture hall, HLRS, Greening-Stuttgart, Stuttgarter Change Labs, und Crossing Borders Stuttgart e.V. all exhibited their activities to engage with students and other passersby. In this way, the forum offered an opportunity for representatives of the different programs to get to know one another and exchange ideas.

Defining Sustainability in Supercomputing

After briefly introducing HLRS and its research, Lorenz explained the concept and goals behind its sustainability project. She emphasized that at HLRS, sustainability involves three overlapping areas — environmental protection and resource management, economic viability, and social responsibility.

Considering sustainability in this way makes it possible to think about how specific actions can often simultaneously lead to improvements across multiple domains. In high-performance computing, for example, reducing energy consumption has the dual benefit of limiting greenhouse gas emissions while also keeping operating costs down and improving a center’s reputation as a responsible environmental steward. HLRS also addresses social dimensions of sustainability by encouraging sustainable behavior in the workplace — such as recycling and energy conservation — and identifying ways to improve working conditions.

Brigitte-Maria Lorenz

Currently, HLRS is working toward certification under the EU Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS), the most comprehensive method for managing environmental performance in organizations. EMAS certification requires the development of an environment management system, which insists on continual improvement of ecological efforts, engagement with employees, legal compliance, and public communication. The HLRS team is augmenting this effort by identifying other measures to improve working conditions and family-friendly office policies, as well as preparing the center for certification under the DIN EN ISO 50 001 energy management system.

Also important to HLRS's sustainability efforts, Lorenz explained, are steps to disseminate its findings. Already the team has prepared a Sustainability Report and is developing guidelines for best practices in sustainability for supercomputing centers. By documenting and distributing its recommendations, HLRS aims to share its knowledge in ways that will help other HPC centers become more sustainable.

Supercomputers and Sustainability: A Contradiction in Terms?

Ursula Paul followed Lorenz by diving deeper into the technical details of the resources used in operating Hazel Hen — the primary supercomputer currently operated at HLRS — as well as practical efforts the center is taking to make it more sustainable. Although Hazel Hen uses large amounts of power and water, the sustainability team is working with system operators to closely document its resource consumption and identify opportunities for improvement.

Ursula Paul

One such opportunity may be to find ways to recycle the heat generated by the electronic equipment making up Hazel Hen and other computing systems at the center. Paul explained, for example, that HLRS is in conversation with other institutes in and around the University to investigate whether heated water from Hazel Hen's cooling system could be recycled for climate control in other buildings on or near campus. The team is also working to identify strategies for reducing the amounts of salt and biocides contained in wastewater used in cooling.

Importantly, Paul also emphasized that although Hazel Hen's operation is very resource-intensive, it is an essential tool for the development of more sustainable products across a wide range of domains. HLRS is very active in research fields that are essential to improving sustainability, including energy, mobility, climate, and health. Users of Hazel Hen have used high-performance computing simulations to improve efficiency in the design of wind turbines, helicopter blades, and automobiles, for example. Others have studied foundational technologies for the design of fuel cells or to model changing climate conditions. These and other applications suggest that despite the energy consumption involved in high-performance computing, it should be seen as an investment that leads to discoveries that in turn offer great environmental and societal benefits.

Looking Ahead

Nachhaltigkeitstag 2017 was the first in what the HLRS sustainability team is planning as an annual event at the University of Stuttgart. In the coming year the team hopes to expand its network across campus to include additional researchers and activists interested in sustainability issues.

Christopher Williams