HPC to cloud: how Dell, Intel and Microsoft are supporting the University of Pisa

Maurizio Davini at the University of Pisa’s IT Center outlines the major storage challenges inherent in supporting students and professors in their research efforts and explains how Dell, Intel and Microsoft are providing much-needed help

Lindsay James
Lindsay James
By Lindsay James on 19 January 2015
HPC to cloud: how Dell, Intel and Microsoft are supporting the University of Pisa

This article was first published in the Winter 2014 issue of OnWindows

One of the oldest universities in the world, the University of Pisa has over 57,000 students split across 20 departments. Renowned for its research and development efforts – especially in the fields of agriculture, ­science, engineering and medicine – the university has spawned a number of notable alumni including politicians, physicists, mathematicians and computer scientists.

To maintain its position as a leader in education and innovation, the university has a dedicated IT centre, which not only supports its students in their research and development ventures, but also offers assistance to the Italian automotive and manufacturing industry, providing facilities for the design and testing of innovative solutions.

“On a daily basis we deliver a huge amount of R&D support,” explains Maurizio Davini, the IT Center’s technical coordinator. “A large amount of our work involves providing adequate storage. For example, the Medical Research Centre (called Imago 7) is developing a new MRI scanner which requires up to 750TB of storage for its imaging. Meanwhile, we are supporting the Medical Foundation’s genomic studies, which requires large-scale storage. And racing car manufacturer Ferrari, for a long time, has been coming to us to help it with its high performance computing requirements.”

Providing this level of support requires collaboration with technology partners, and this is where Dell comes into play. “Our relationship with Dell is not simply a case of supplier-client; it’s a real collaboration,” Davini says. “Dell has helped us to create a state-of-the-art storage and computing environment for our students and researchers and, in turn, we have helped Dell with a number of proof of concepts. We help each other enormously – it’s a relationship that really works.”

The collaboration has most certainly paid off. Together, the IT Center and Dell, along with help from Intel, have successfully created the Dell|Intel High Performance Computing (HPC) and Cloud Competence Centre, which uses Microsoft cloud technologies at its core running side to side with open source HPC and cloud solutions. With this in place, the facility has its own unified storage solution, which can securely house and manage block- and file-based data. At the heart of the platform are five Dell EqualLogic PS6100XV and PS6500E storage arrays and two Dell EqualLogic FS7500 unified storage solutions. Combined, they offer around 750 TB of capacity.

“No other solution that we looked at offered the same kind of flexibility as the Dell solution,” says Davini. “Today, we can meet the storage requirements of our users, regardless of what type of data they want to store.”

Local institutions and university departments can drive their research programmes through better support. Using the Dell-Intel HPC & Cloud Competence Center, the university is helping these bodies run more sophisticated programmes than ever before. Recent work has involved analysing the mobility of people across the region by using data produced by their mobile phones. The IT Center has also supported research on tweeting.

“We can run highly complex algorithms that were just not possible before our Dell solution,” Davini says. “We can support local organisations like Ferrari in their ventures. And we can drive research that, in turn, is helping development across the region.”

In addition, Microsoft Italy and the University of Pisa have launched Cloud OS Immersion, a new competence centre and laboratory for young people, Italian companies and professionals to experience the benefits of new technologies integrated into the cloud operating system. The centre aims to facilitate encounters with the technology and encourage dialogue and the experience sharing among experts from Microsoft, university researchers, students, companies and channel operators, in order to pool knowledge on cloud computing and big data.

The IT Center is also working with Dell and Microsoft to create a virtualised desktop environment that will foster greater mobility for university staff and students alike. And this is just the start of things to come. Over the coming months, the IT Center will work with Dell, Intel and Cloudera to deploy a cloud-based big data solution that will be used to educate a new generation of technology students. “We will use a solution based on Hadoop to introduce big data into the curriculum,” Davini explains. “It’s fantastic that we can use technology like this to inspire and teach a whole new generation of data scientists.”

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