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Dell Technologies Interview: Wirth Research Talks (and Walks) HPC for Cutting Carbon Footprints

[Sponsored Content]  In this interview, part of our series conducted on behalf of Dell Technologies, UK-based engineering firm Wirth Research talks about using HPC to cut its clients carbon footprints – specifically, supermarket companies.

But as Wirth’s Rob Rowsell explains, Wirth also walks the energy efficiency walk. Two years ago, when the firm decided to overhaul its engineering IT infrastructure, Wirth decided to house its Dell Technologies-based HPC gear (or “kit,” as Rowsell says) in geothermal-powered (zero carbon energy source) Verne Global, which is located in Iceland. The greenhouse gas cutting results Wirth delivers for its clients and for itself are impressive.

Doug Black:
Today on behalf of Dell Technologies we’re talking with Rob Rowsell, he is engineering manager at Wirth Research – Wirth is a UK company specializing in computational fluid dynamics directed at energy efficiency in building design. Rob, welcome.

Rob Rowsell: Thank you very much for having me.

Black: So tell us about Wirth Research — interesting company, interesting corporate history. As I understand it, the company began using CFD for Formula One race car design but moved into green building design, is that basically the evolution?

Rowsell: Basically, yeah. So we started in 2004 to primarily help Honda in the IndyCar championship in in the States, focusing on aerodynamics and chassis design to help them improve the performance of the cars their teams were running. Back then, the main aerodynamic tool was wind tunnel testing. And I joined the company in late 2004 to start the CFD department because it was just getting to the point where we can start yielding useful results. And since then, I drove the CFD capability from one computer in the corner of my bedroom to thousands of cores over the next subsequent decade. And we expanded from doing Indy cars to demand racing, both in America and Europe, and Formula 1 as well.

So then around 2010, we started diversifying outside of motorsport, where we had taken the various technologies, we’ve developed and refined and refined and refined. We started taking those technologies and pointing them at other industries that hadn’t had that evolution of refining the technologies. And we realized that we could use engineering technologies focused on making a car go very fast for a fixed amount of fuel and we could make other things perform as well but for less fuel or less energy.

So one of the first industries we looked at was haulage, fuel for moving then trucks around. So we developed an aerodynamic kit to reduce fuel consumption… And then we started talking to supermarkets initially about their lorries, they said, ‘Well, actually, one of our main issues is refrigeration.’ So we got into developing retrofit kits to help keep product temperature in open-fronted refrigerators, at target temperature, but using a lot less, a lot less electricity to keep those fridges cold. In the background we’d also started working with architects to make their buildings more aerodynamically efficient. And then those two streams combined, and we started helping supermarkets make supermarket aisles more comfortable and more efficient.

Black: Tell us about on the software side, just as a point of interest, some of the CFD packages you’re using.

Rowsell: Over our history we’ve used ANSYS Fluent as one of our main CFD solvers and also OpenFOAM, we’re using a lot more OpenFOAM these days to the to the two main solvers we use Fluent and an OpenFOAM are the packages we use to support that process. On the meshing side we use things like ANSA and …, and then we postprocess it to turn the data into engaging pictures and informative intuitive visuals using vectors like Insight and Power View.

Black: On the hardware side, I understand the company has carried its energy efficiency ethic over to your infrastructure and that you’ve teamed up with Verne Global, which of course is the geothermal-powered colo based in Iceland. When did that happen? And how is it working out?

Rowsell: Through 2020, it was on our to-do list to start looking at reviewing all our infrastructure anyway, because it was up for renewal. Then when the pandemic hit, and we had to move people to remote working, we realize that people could remote work and do the type of job we were doing. We didn’t know what the future held. So when I started spec-ing the new hardware for our data center, that knowledge combined with the fact that the benchmarking we were doing on the new AMD EPYC processors, the benchmarking with Dell, we realized that the footprint of the new installation would be a lot smaller, the energy consumption of the new installation would be a lot smaller, and the ability of our engineers to be able to perform their jobs remotely – all those elements fell together. I decided to start looking at remote locating it rather than in our data center in our aging office park. So I contacted someone I knew from previous conversations with Verne Global, we started to piece the puzzle together and ended up with a remarkably efficient system productivity-wise, operationally as well as energy.

Black: Verne Global, of course, is a Dell Technologies titanium partner, it’s also an HPC-as-a-service provider, tell us about Verne’s HPC class capabilities that Wirth utilizes.

Rowsell: Our hardware that’s located at Verne Global is exclusively ours and our design. We designed the installation with Dell. So in terms of Verne Global’s HPC-as-a-service offering, we’re not currently tapping into that. But their knowledge of how to host the kit and how to look after it and the infrastructure, the connectivity to it and security – not just security in terms of cybersecurity but knowing that the power is always going to be on, there’s not going to be any power cuts and so on – all of that makes it an ideal place for us to host the kit. But it also means that if through growth we get to a point where we’re needing to burst out and use more HPC capacity than we currently have on our chunk of kit, we know that we could burst out onto their HPC-as-a-service.

Black: So it’s almost a private cloud kind of capability there. Have you all measured the energy savings that have been realized by going to Verne with its geothermal-powered data center?

Rowsell: Our new hardware, which replaces all of our Windows infrastructure, email, servers and so on, all our desktop computers, have been virtualized on it, as well as our HPC clusters and data storage. All of that new kit is using about, I think it’s 25 percent of the electricity that our old infrastructure used. So that would be the case whether it was located in Iceland or in the UK. But then that remaining 25 percent that we’re still using is 100 percent renewable, so not only do we reduce the number of kilowatt hours we’re using but it’s carbon zero.

Black: So share with us a little bit about the some of the Dell hardware

Rosell: We’re primarily based on Dell PowerEdge servers with AMD EPYC Second Generation processors. The HPC cluster – the previous cluster we had was over four racks, I think – the new kit has been compressed right down into one rack. It’s made up of 18 servers with 64 cores in each. And then we’ve got 300 terabytes of data storage using InfiniBand. And that’s in one set up. We’ve got virtualized desktops and workstations that our engineers can log into from home. So for example, some of the work we do requires very heavy graphics and very large memory on the workstations, and our engineers just with a laptop at home VPN into servers in Iceland, fire up a virtualized machine to replicate a slice of Nvidia Tesla T4 in the … machine that’s as powerful or more powerful than one that sat next to them making a racket.

Black: Tell us about the energy efficiency gains Wirth has delivered for some clients, maybe on an anecdotal basis, quantifiable reductions in carbon footprints.

Rowsell: On the refrigeration side, our background being from motorsport – we used to go in wind tunnel testing and track testing and then proving our designs on the track ultimately in a race. So we carried that correlation and validation process through into work we now do, which means that when we say our product, if you clip it onto the front of your fridge, it tidies up the airflow and it will give you this saving. That’s not just a rough estimate of the saving, it’s been tested and proven out in multiple, multi-month trials in stores and in test lab conditions. So our retrofit eco blade package that can be attached onto the front of shelves and supermarkets, that saves 20 to 25 percent of the electricity consumption of refrigeration. In real terms, what that means is that for a typical four foot wide chunk of a fridge – so a typical supermarket shelf is about four foot wide – for that piece, we are saving about 1000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year. So over a medium sized 200 foot of open-fronted refrigerated display case or cabinet, you’re looking at about 50,000 kilowatt hours saved per year.

Black: Great stuff. Well Rob, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you today. We’ve been with Robert Rowsell at Wirth Research. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.

Rowsell: Thank you very much.

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