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PlaFRIM celebrates 10 years of R&D and interdisciplinarity

10 years! The R&D platform PlaFRIM is celebrating its ten-year anniversary this year. The past decade has seen the birth of a range of interdisciplinary collaborations, leading to success in various different fields. On the back of this success, the PlaFRIM team are keen to continue their upward trajectory, and to help invent the software of the future.

Digital simulation of the flow generated by the movement of a bio-inspired elastic membrane (48 hours of CPU time on PlaFRIM with 384 processors)

Faced with complex problems, mathematicians and IT engineers need to work together in order to arrive at solutions. This was the concept behind PlaFRIM , the collective platform for research into IT and mathematics launched in 2009 by Inria, the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, the Bordeaux Mathematical Institute and the LaBRI (Laboratoire Bordelais de Recherche en Informatique).
“There are major national computing centres in France, which then spread to the different regions”, explains François Rue, the platform’s technical manager.“PlaFRIMis something else entirely, however, a tool designed for experimentation and R&D. It is used to test software building blocks on next-gen machines in order to stay ahead of the competition while waiting for the rest of the program to be ready.”
The platform gives its users access to constantly updated equipment. “We’re not concerned with the size of our clusters, instead placing more emphasis on their diversity”, explains Olivier Coulaud, head of the platform. “Our goal is to offer materials capable of supporting the development of the software of the future, including for “exascale”* machines, set for release in 2021-2022.” 

PlaFRIM - where collaboration is key

From a technical point of view, the way in which the platform is structured is not particularly complex. “Obviously you need to gain new skills in terms of the materials, but it’s a stimulating challenge”, agrees François Rue. “That said, getting researchers to work together is more difficult, given that collaborations depend on the time they have available to them. Interdisciplinarity very much comes with the territory at Inria, however, and the teams are willing to play along. And seeing as PlaFRIM provides them with the technical resources they need to work together, it has led to a high level of interaction between the different research teams, an intersectionality which simply didn’t exist before.” Indeed, it is this intersectionality that has been behind much of the success enjoyed by PlaFRIM over the course of the past ten years. 
Four Inria teams made up of mathematicians and IT specialists came together to develop a software stack capable of solving linear algebra problems, i.e. highly complex equations. “Both Airbus and the CEA (the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission) use this software stack”, reveals Olivier Coulaud. “We are currently working on validating the stack in the field of biodiversity, with a view towards classification.”

Infinite applications

Digital simulation of a fish swimming (2 hours of CPU time on PlaFRIM with 256 cores)

A vast array of application areas could stand to benefit from research carried out through PlaFRIM. The Memphis project team, for example, had previously worked on small-scale fluid mechanics, but thanks to the platform they are now able to tackle problems with as many as 500 million unknowns. This saw them enter into a collaboration with Valorem in the field of wind energy. “The project team RealOpt, who deal in optimisation, have also been able to expand”, continues Olivier Coulaud. “They are one of our biggest users, with projects ranging from transport optimisation to glass cutting for Saint-Gobain.”
In total, somewhere in the region of 250 users log in to PlaFRIM each year, around thirty or so of whom are very active each day. PlaFRIM is open to everyone, from Inria researchers across France to scientists based abroad, not to mention other national research centres, such as the CNRS. And there is a growing diversity in the types of communities interested in the tool. “A few years ago, we said to ourselves that some of the advanced materials we had at our disposal could be used for training students on parallel computing, giving them the opportunity to get to grips with these types of tools”, explains François Rue. The platform was then opened up to companies, through Cifre theses, for example, but also through the regional programme Snasa(Simulation numérique en Aquitaine et Sud-Atlantique), which aims to promote computing among SMEs.

10 years of satisfaction

As the candles are blown out, it seems like the right time to take stock of the progress made. “The platform has met the expectations of users, all of whom have been unanimous in their praise of it”, states Olivier Coulaud. The figures speak for themselves: the average usage rate sits at 55%, with more than 50 scientific papers published each year between 2013 and 2017. PlaFRIM has also helped bring about a dozen or so technological development initiatives, the goal of which is to recruit engineers in order to develop or consolidate software.

“What's more, there have been a number of cases of researchers keen for us to add their material to the platform, without asking for anything in return, just because they knew that it would be properly administered and monitored this way”, says François Rue, keen to have the last word. “This type of collaboration proves that we have earned teams’ trust...while also giving everyone the opportunity to benefit from the material, thus boosting knowledge and understanding.” The PlaFRIM team are set to continue on their upward trajectory, adapting the material and opening the platform up to meet needs and demand, with the overarching goal of bringing IT specialists, mathematicians and other interested communities together to build the software and the algorithms of the future. 

* Supercalculators capable of performing a billion billion operations a second