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Waiting for Kay 2: Researchers bemoan demise of Ireland’s supercomputer

More powerful successor to supercomputer - named after pioneering Irish scientist - is due soon but funding has yet to be approved

Ireland’s mysterious supercomputer Kay, which caused a stir in the Dáil chamber this week, sounds like a whizz-bang device from a James Bond movie. In some respects it was: it operated in what has been described as the core of the fifth industrial revolution.

Hosted by the University of Galway it came into operation in August 2018, and immediately enabled Ireland to participate with the big global players in high-performance computing (HPC), which is at the cutting edge of quantum computing – the Holy Grail of IT – and the rapidly emerging fields of AI and “deep learning”. The technology deployed elsewhere enabled the rapid development of a Covid-19 vaccine, for example.

A wide range of new research and development was enabled on Kay, which was named in memory of programmer Kay McNulty, later known as Kathleen Antonelli. She worked on the first programmable, electronic, general-purpose digital computer built by the United States in 1945.

McNulty was born in 1921 in a Gaeltacht area in Feymore, near Creeslough, Co Donegal. Her father was arrested on the night of her birth for his link to republican activities during the War of Independence, and on release from prison two years later he emigrated with his family to Philadelphia. After graduating with a degree in mathematics in 1942, Kay got job as a human “computer” at University of Pennsylvania helping to develop what was then an entirely new technology.


Her namesake in Galway was used for functions including increased resolution in weather and climate forecasting (enhancing accuracy) for Met Éireann as well as larger and longer simulations for research in areas such as medical device development, nanotechnology (manipulating tiny atoms and molecules), genomics (mapping and editing genes) and drug design.

Kay was also capable of running a variety of workflows at the same time which required large computing power and vast amounts of memory. It was used by academics, industry, State agencies and government departments to solve complex problems quickly, such as transport system difficulties, environmental issues and healthcare strategies.

That was until it was decommissioned in November 2023 by the Irish Centre for High-End Computing (ICHEC) when its warranty ran out. It has prompted a political row over whether the ball was dropped in a world where data is power and IT capability is essential to maintaining Ireland’s strong flow of foreign direct investment.

Sinn Féin spokeswoman on enterprise, trade and employment, Louise O’Reilly has castigated the Government for the delay in replacing Kay despite ample warning it was becoming obsolete. She told the Dáil a new supercomputer would take three years to deliver but “there is still no indication when the purchase of a new supercomputer will be actioned”.

In January 2022 a proposal was put by ICHEC to the Government on a replacement to be co-financed by Europe through the EU European High Performance Computing Joint Undertaking (EuroHPC JU) which announced in June 2022 it had selected five sites, including Ireland, to host the “next generation” of supercomputers.,In short, the EU would pay 35 per cent if matched by 65 per cent of State funding.

EU hurdles were cleared; Ireland was set to get a supercomputer called CASPIr (Computational Analysis and Simulation Platform for Ireland). Details surrounding the expected timeline were not shared, though it was described as being as much as 25 times more powerful than Kay.

It is understood it could cost up to €65 million in terms of hardware and operational costs over five years, but could cost as little as €19 million.

In the Dáil last month, Minister of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Patrick O’Donovan said an interim HPC service was deployed “pending a strategic review of HPC provision in Ireland”.

“A tender was published by ICHEC in July 2023 seeking compute resources with a similar environment and user interface as that provided by Kay. Subsequently this contract was awarded in November 2023 to LuxProvide, the HPC organisation operating Luxembourg’s supercomputer MeluXina which is part of the EU’s network of supercomputers.

“Irish researchers, assisted by the ICHEC team, now have dedicated access to MeluXina, one of the most powerful supercomputers in Europe.”

All ICHEC national service projects would eventually be hosted on MeluXina with a gradual migration of existing projects from Kay. “Before Kay can be replaced an independent review of national HPC requirements and a cost-benefit analysis of various options available is required,” he said.

O’Donovan said the review was required “due to the unprecedented cost of the new generation of HPC solutions which may require significant additional exchequer commitment and the level of due diligence required to justify such an investment”.

Prof Stefano Sanvito, director of the Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructure and Nanodivices (CRANN) in Trinity College, says the bulk of his team’s work involved using Kay – it was one of its biggest users because it had sufficient computer power to simulate how materials respond to external stimuli.

“We design materials to withstand extremely high temperatures and pressures,” he said. They used Kay, for instance, in collaboration with the German space agency, Airbus and others to simulate conditions for space craft re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

Kay, however, was losing capacity at the end of its working life. “It was not a competitive machine, compared to what was available to European colleagues. A Finnish researcher has access to a supercomputer that is 200 times more powerful. We are 200 times less competitive,” he said.

A temporary solution to use the MeluXina supercomputer is not ideal, he said, as it requires a lot of extra logistical effort including “new people and new architecture”.

While 600 researchers across 10 higher education institutions used Kay, ICHEC director Prof Jean Christophe Desplat says the supercomputer was not just a tool for boffins. Its role is primarily to process data, being “a key platform to support AI”.

He wishes to get across to politicians that HPC is key to future policy development. He highlights its remarkable ability to test “what if?” scenarios – for instance, analysing the green transition and at the same time how to minimise its impact on farmers. “Politicians will immensely benefit from this – this is not a niche platform.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times