Leggi in italiano

The Leonardo supercomputer, currently the fourth most powerful machine in the world, was inaugurated in November 2022 in Bologna. Credit: Cineca.

Nature Italy launches a series about the new research centres to be rolled out nationally with funds from the post-pandemic recovery plan

From climatologists to pharmacologists, from geophysicists to material scientists, many Italian researchers are hungry for more computing power than what their universities, institutes or companies can currently provide. They may get it under a €320 million investment in the country’s new National Centre for High-Performance Computing, Big Data and Quantum Computing (HPC). The project will be based in Bologna, but function as a country-wide infrastructure, and the most cross-disciplinary of the five new national research centres created by the Ministry of University and Research through a call based on the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (PNRR), with EU funds.

“The main aim of the centre is not to do its own research, but to build instruments that enable others to do research,” explains Antonio Zoccoli, president of the National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) and of the newly-established ICSC foundation that will govern it.

The centre will use €140 million to create a distributed computing infrastructure called a data lake – essentially a shared repository that can host any type of unstructured data, and make it accessible to analytics and machine learning tools. This will be achieved by improving existing computation centres across Italy and creating new ones, and connecting them through a high-speed data transfer network. Italian researchers currently rely on the GARR network with speeds up to 100 gigabytes per second, but the ambition is to reach 1 Terabyte per second. Zoccoli hopes to have a well-configured prototype of the data lake in place by 2024. At the heart sits the Leonardo supercomputer, installed last year in Bologna, and currently the fourth most powerful computer in the world.

The HPC centre has a ‘hub-and-spoke’ structure, with one central node managing a large consortium of institutions across Italy. Ten spokes, including universities, institutes, and research organizations, will apply supercomputing to a wide range of research fields, including space science, medicine, chemistry, astrophysics, Earth, and climate science. The hub is in Bologna and is led by Cineca, a public consortium that provides computing services to Italian Universities and research institutes, and co-led by INFN. The centre is managed by the ICSC foundation, made of 37 universities, public and private research institutes and 15 big private companies. About €100 million of its budget is devoted to recruiting 250 new PhD students and 250 new post-docs in addition to senior scientists already employed at affiliated institutions, for a total of about 1,000 researchers. Italy’s Ministry for Research has required that 41% of the budget is spent in the country's south, and that women make up 40% of the centre’s staff.

A good example of how the new centre may improve the work of Italian researchers comes from the National Institute for Geophysics and Vulcanology (INGV), which is part of the spoke on Environment and Natural Disasters. The institute’s researchers already use supercomputing for modeling the dispersal of volcanic ashes or pyroclastic phenomena after an eruption, for analysing seismic sequences, and for simulating tsunamis. Terabytes of data are stored in the INGV databases waiting for a suitable supercomputer to analyse them. “We currently use a series of computing centres all over Italy,” says Emanuele Casarotti, senior researcher at INGV. “Very often you have to wait in line to access them”.

This is a problem, especially in the middle of a natural disaster. Having more computing power could be a game changer, says Casarotti. With €5 million funding from the HPC centre, a new dedicated facility will be installed at the Gran Sasso INFN Laboratories in L’Aquila, which could be reserved for disaster applications during emergencies, Casarotti says.

Climate scientists are also eager to use more computing power. The Euro-Mediterranean Centre for Climate Change (CMCC) leads the spoke for Earth and Climate, which will add a new machine to its computing centre based in Lecce. “The main goal of our spoke is to develop shared modeling tools and digital platforms for the creation of comprehensive climate models of the Italian peninsula,” says Silvio Gualdi, senior scientist at CMCC and former president of the Italian Society of Climate Sciences.

In addition to L’Aquila and Lecce, new centres will be set up at the Federico II University in Naples (for life sciences and data security), Frascati (for space applications) and Bari (for interdisciplinary research).

A key goal of the HPC national centre is to link public research with private companies. Companies have a key position in the ICSC Foundation, and four of them — insurance company, UnipolSai, energy company Eni, the state-controlled ICT company, Sogei, and the motorway operator Autostrade per l’Italia — sit on its 10-member board. Unipol, for example, is interested in applications that would deliver accurate predictions of climate and hydrogeological risk that are relevant for its business. Francesca Zarri, director of technology for Eni, explains that the company’s interest includes applications for mining research, new materials, wind engineering, energy grids and smart cities, as well as simulating the behavior of plasma in nuclear fusion plants.

Another public-private partnership will involve Cineca, and the pharmaceutical company Dompé, that will use the new data centre in Naples for research on life sciences mRNA drugs, biodiversity, biofuels and agricultural research, adapting data-analysis algorithms to different problems and fields, “For example, we have a project with the Tuscia University on algorithms to predict the yields of arable crops in Southern Italy up to three months in advance,” says Andrea Beccari, vice president of Exscalate at Dompé. “They use the results, and we keep the ownership of the algorithms”. Another project will test new algorithms for quantum computers to study the interaction between drugs and receptors.

“We expect inputs from companies on how to allocate financial resources and on the development of new projects” says Zoccoli. A €32 million innovation fund, for example, will manage competitive calls for new projects, and will be directly managed by the centre’s Innovation Board, which is composed of the companies’ representatives.

The PNRR funds cover the period until 2025, after which the HPC will rely on fees paid by its members and on the possibility of attracting European grants. Providing services to the private sector, however, will play a big part in its financial sustainability, says Zoccoli. But most Italian companies are small or medium ones, and it might be more challenging for them to benefit from data science. Zoccoli says that part of the center’s budget will be used to try to close this gap by helping smaller companies start collaborations with research groups. “We would like to build a bridge between research and the market, pass on the expertise, then let private actors grow autonomously” he says.