Leonardo: the fourth most powerful supercomputer in the world now a reality
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Leonardo: the fourth most powerful supercomputer in the world now a reality

The supercomputer unveiled at Tecnopolo in Bologna with the president of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, in attendance

Leonardo: the fourth most powerful supercomputer in the world now a reality
By Redazione The Plan -

Leonardo is now a reality. The computer will provide 80% of Italy’s computing power and 20% of Europe’s. Every year, it will attract over 1500 students and researchers from around the world, making Bologna a Data Valley for studying a digital twin of the globe, innovative medical therapies, and jobs of the future that can still only be imagined. It will even create a new Italian Silicon Valley. Leonardo was described at SC22 in Dallas, the chief international conference for high performance computing, as the fourth most powerful supercomputer in the world. Its official inauguration was held at Tecnopolo in Bologna, with the event attended by important Italian dignitaries. Cutting the ribbon was the chair of Cineca (which manages the computer) Francesco Ubertini and the president of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella. They were accompanied by the minister for Universities and Research, Anna Maria Bernini; the president of the Emilia-Romagna Region, Stefano Bonaccini; the mayor of Bologna, Matteo Lepore; and the director general of the Directorate General of Communication, Networks, Content and Technology at the European Commission, Roberto Viola.

Currently the European Union’s largest investment in Italy in the scientific field, the project is set to reposition both the city and the entire region internationally. It will likewise have positive effects on local communities and their quality of life. This human-centric technology will boost networking and collaboration in the fields of scientific research into climate change and medical treatments, including in cases of drug resistance. This amounts to something even more significant than the region’s so-called Motor Valley, with projections seeing it operating much further into the future. A good example is the first collaboration protocol, which was signed during the inauguration with Dompè, one of Italy’s largest biopharmaceutical companies, which specializes in primary care and biotech for researching and treating rare diseases currently with no cure. Dompè CEO, Sergio Dompè, declared that the agreement was “a highway to the future” and one of the most important building blocks to emerge from the event.

“The result of major investments by Europe, through the EuroHPC joint venture, and the Italian Ministry of Universities and Research, this was a complex project, beginning with the design of the system itself intended to support a large production capacity focused on sustainability,” said Francesco Ubertini. “It will place our region at the forefront of exascale computing, capable of performing over 150 million billion calculations per second.”

Leonardo isn’t an isolated entity. It’s the backbone of an entire system and network. It’s part of an ecosystem that will multiply opportunities and trigger new directions, and do it without ignoring the fact that science and innovation must always be human-centric:

“Humans must always be central,” insists archbishop and president of the CEI, Matteo Maria Zuppi. “It’s the great challenge of artificial intelligence: Humans must not lose themselves. They must know how to use this extraordinary creative and innovative power to create life and not death.”


Leonardo and daily life

Inaugurazione supercomputer Leonardo ©Francesco Ammendola

Leonardo is not an end but a means. Its value can be measured in terms of what it allows, and will allow, us to do. And there’s a whole world of benefits that it will create for us that go beyond the machine itself. These benefits begin with 50% of its computing power being available to Italian research institutes and universities, with the remaining 50% for European researchers. This is already having repercussions on everyone’s daily life. As Riccardo Viola explained, Leonardo can provide a digital twin of the whole planet (or just a city): “It will be possible for us to better understand how the planet functions. We’ll be able to study extreme weather events and predict their location and timing, so warnings can be issued not to take a certain road or not to build a certain factory in a certain place.” It will also be possible to study issues such as renewable energy, climate change, cybersecurity, agriculture, and personalized medicine. And, following the agreement with Dompè, the computer’s first task will be in this last sector, performing a million hours of calculations intended to accelerate research into pandemics and the development of new drugs. In just a few weeks, it will be possible to achieve results that would otherwise have taken years.”

“Leonardo will support sustainable growth, innovation, and human development,” added Stefano Bonaccini. “We want to attract knowledge, professionalism, and talent to our region’s ecosystem of universities, research centers, and manufacturing, all of which are committed to the objectives set out in the Agreement on Labor and Climate. First off are new and good jobs, ecological and digital transition, and the reduction of social and geographic disparities. Emilia-Romagna has been the home of Italian supercomputing for over fifty years, thanks to Cineca and our universities. Today, we’ve strengthened our Data Valley, which now occupies an international level. We intend to continue to be leaders in robotic, technological, and digital innovation. We owe it to the new generations: building a better, more inclusive, sustainable, supportive, and community-oriented society starts with strategic projects like this one.”


Leonardo in numbers

Inaugurazione supercomputer Leonardo ©Giacomo Maestri, Courtesy of Cineca

Leonardo has 155 compute racks, 4992 compute nodes, and 110 PB of storage. Its newly released booster version reached 174.7 petaflops (i.e. a measure of floating point operations per second). But the system isn’t yet fully operational, with forecasts in the region of over 240 petaflops once Atos and Cineca have completed the system. A pre-test phase will take place from January through March 2023, during which the computer will be tested at maximum power. Actual research will then start in April, with project applications already open.

As a unique computer, Leonardo is housed in a rectangular, column-free space, called a white space. This is where the racks, servers, storage systems, and electrical systems are all located. This connects with the gray space, the area dedicated to back-end equipment. Leonardo occupies three levels: a basement with four independent tunnels used by the cooling system, a ground floor where the actual computer is located, and a first floor, with the electrical system powering the computer.

The absence of columns in the main room, the size of two basketball courts, is necessary not only to house the 155 racks, but also, and in particular, to ensure flexibility in the event of an earthquake. The room is made of reinforced concrete and designed to ensure maximum resistance to seismic events (class 4). A focus was also placed on fire risk prevention, and the structure has an REI 240 rating for retaining mechanical strength when exposed to fire. This means that in the event of a fire, for 240 minutes the room is able to prevent the fire from spreading to other parts of the building, will stop the spread of combustion gases, and, through thermal insulation, will keep rooms not affected by the fire at a tolerable temperature.

The data room floor is also specially constructed. It’s raised to allow the installation of cooling pipes under the racks and consists of modular conductive panels. Measuring 23 5/8 x 23 5/8” (600×600 mm) and with a thickness of 1 3/8” (35 mm), these panels are reinforced with sheet steel and a heavy duty structure of special high strength crosspieces. This is necessary because the total weight of the racks in the room is over 374 US tons (340 t) – roughly the same as if over 4700 people were crammed into the space occupied by Leonardo’s racks.

The cooling system is of vital importance. Without it, Leonardo would rapidly lose efficiency, catch fire, and eventually stop working. To keep the temperature under control, the racks are cooled with water: the water enters the cooling system at 99°F (37°C) and, with the CPUs operating at maximum capacity, exits at 117°F (47°C). It’s then sent to adiabatic coolers, which lower the temperature back to 99°F. This “waste” heat is used to heat the neighboring rooms.


Tecnopolo: poised between modernity and heritage

Inaugurazione supercomputer Leonardo ©Francesco Ammendola

Leonardo and the Cineca datacenter are located at Bologna’s Tecnopolo, which is also the future headquarters of the Italian Meteorology Agency, iFAB (International Foundation Big Data and Artificial Intelligence for Human Development), and various research centers, including Infn, Cineca, and Cnr. It will also be home to the European datacenter for medium-term forecasts. Designed by ATI Project, the complex fuses function and conservation through the use of BIM, which was employed throughout the construction phase, up to and including the preparation of the as-built documentation.

This methodology forms the starting point for the optimized management of the structure, which centers on the sustainability and maintenance of a building originally designed by an internationally famous architect.

Returning to Leonardo, the new supercomputer, financed to the tune of 240 million euros by the Italian government and European Union, and the rest of the Tecnopolo complex are parts of an urban redevelopment project that has brought a former tobacco factory back to life. This 1952 heritage-listed complex was designed by Pier Luigi Nervi. The renovation project focused on conservation, with the most important buildings retained in full but with changes to meet functional and technological needs.

From the outset, the building housing the Leonardo supercomputer datacenter was designed to achieve LEED Gold certification or higher.

During the renovations needed to make the structure suitable for Leonardo, ancient Roman remains were uncovered. Excavations have brought to light a group of nine tombs, a series of wells and water channels, and the remains of a Roman road.

“Bologna’s development as a Data Valley must also have a social component,” concluded Matteo Lepore. “Talented young professionals must feel welcome here. We can – in fact, we must – develop model policies so that young professionals can fulfil their dreams. We hope that Italy and Europe invest more in science and research, so that it’s men and women who lead technology and not vice versa.”


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