Early in 1998, the Minister for the Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Dr David Kemp, put in train a process to create a genuinely national computational infrastructure. Accordingly, an advisory board referred to as the Interim Board of the National High-Performance Computing Centre (chaired by Dr Michael Sargent) was put in place, and tasked with the development of a proposal for a suitable national model to be put to the Minister for funding. What emerged from the deliberations of the Interim Board, advised by an expert national committee, together with independent advice from the Director of the then (US) National Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure, Dr Sid Karin, were recommendations for a framework for the Australian Partnership for Advanced Computing (APAC), the objectives of which were to:
- Fund a peak facility at ANU, underpinned by a partnership model to facilitate high-performance computing activity in every state, along with
- Expertise and education programs that could operate both centrally and nationally.
These recommendations were accepted by the Minister, Senator Amanda Vanstone, who allocated $19.5M to initiate the APAC program. What was less well known is that the bulk of the initial funding for APAC was obtained from the Australian Research Council, which at the time was operated as a program with the Department. The decision to fund an out-of-program activity, such as APAC, from the ARC led to questions about the independence of the ARC, and contributed ultimately to the decision to establish the ARC as an independent authority with its own budget.
The recommendation to locate the APAC National Facility at ANU was based on the University’s leadership of, and its considerable previous investments in, HPC infrastructure, together with its willingness to share access to its facilities. ANU’s then Vice-Chancellor, Professor Deane Terrell, strongly supported the idea that ANU could and should play a leading role in such national initiatives. ANU’s successful carriage of the governance and management of APAC owes much to Professor Terrell, and to Professor Robin Stanton (then Pro Vice-Chancellor of ANU), who anchored the responsibilities of the host organisation.
Early in 1999, the Board of APAC was established under the chairmanship of Professor David Beanland, and the appointment of the foundation Executive Director, Professor John O’Callaghan followed soon thereafter. APAC was formally launched late in 1999, having initiated the process by which the:
- Partnership could be established, through proposals from organisations, and consortia of organisations; and
- the National Facility, i.e., the national peak system, could be established at ANU.
- By 2000-01, APAC as a “partnership of partnerships” was largely in place, with the membership being:
- Australian National University, as Host;
- Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation;
- Australian Centre for Advanced Computing and Communications (ac3), a consortium representing the universities of NSW;
- Queensland Parallel Supercomputing Foundation (QPSF, later QCIF), a consortium representing the universities of Queensland;
- South Australian Partnership for Advanced Computing, a consortium representing the universities of South Australia;
- Tasmanian Partnership for Advanced Computing (TPAC), a consortium led by the University of Tasmania;
- Victorian Partnership for Advanced Computing (VPAC), a consortium of Victorian universities;
- The Pawsey Supercomputing Centre, a consortium of CSIRO and the universities of Western Australia.
The National Facility was ultimately commissioned early in 2001. With the installation of a Compaq/HP Alphaserver SC system of 1 Teraflop capacity, Australia finally had an internationally competitive system, debuting at 31st on the Top500 list, the global ranking of supercomputer performance.
With the establishment of services, APAC operated in two phases, respectively from 2001–04, and from 2004–07. Its first phase, funded largely by monies from the ARC, comprised the:
- Establishment of services from the National Facility—which were delivered from the ANU Supercomputing Facility;
- Building of national expertise in, and the uptake of, the use of advanced computing in research.
Each of the APAC partners subscribed to an access share of the National Facility system, complementing their local facilities. Following the commencement of services from the National Facility, ANU used it to service all of its high-end computing requirements. This was done through a substantial access share which it paid for with a combination of cash and in-kind contributions. The largest share of the Facility (approximately 50%) was allocated to the APAC Merit Allocation Scheme, an open access allocation process strongly aligned with research merit and computational suitability.
The second phase of APAC operations (2004–07) were funded through the System Infrastructure Initiatives of the Commonwealth Government. This entailed the:
- Refreshing of the National Facility peak system; and
- Nurturing of a nascent national eResearch program nationally through its Grid and Collaboration Tools program, and the beginnings of a data and storage program.
The Compaq/HP system was replaced in 2005 by a 14 Teraflop SGI Altix 3700 system, which debuted at 26th on the Top500 list.
Throughout the APAC years, operational services for the peak facility were provided through the ANU Supercomputing Facility (ANUSF), which was accountable to the Executive Director of APAC. During the early years, ANUSF was led by its foundation Head, Dr Bob Gingold, and subsequently by his successor, Dr Ben Evans.
Towards the end of this second phase of APAC, a Departmental review was conducted in advance of further infrastructure investments that were to come under a new, collaborative framework, known eventually as NCRIS (National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy). An international review noted the considerable success of the APAC program, including its high-quality of service, its internationally competitive ranking, the cultivation of a national community of researchers and support specialists, the embedding of high-level computing expertise across a breadth of application areas, the nurturing of grid expertise and collaboration tools, and the fostering of engagement and commitment from government at state and federal level.
With the implementation of NCRIS from 2007 onwards, the Australian Government set in place a funding allocation to promote the uptake of eResearch techniques across the scientific disciplines. While the APAC model had been a considerable success, the strategic framework for Platforms for Collaboration was conceptualised differently, with distinct, investment programs for:
- Interoperability and Collaboration Infrastructure—through the Australian Research Collaboration Service (ARCS),
- Data Infrastructure — through the Australian National Data Service (ANDS),
- High-performance Computing — through the National Computational Infrastructure (NCI),
These are referred to in the following section, which covers the NCI years.