A Visit to the Barcelona Supercomputing Facility

By Keith Allison| May 5, 2019

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A Supercomputer Inside a Former Barcelona Chapel

By Keith Allison

In the quiet Barcelona neighborhood of Les Corts, far from the crowds in the city’s historic Gothic Quarter, is the wooded campus of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC). There you will find the Torre Girona chapel. The grounds and most of the buildings, crisscrossed with meandering gravel paths, were built as a private estate in 1860. The chapel wasn’t added to the landscape until the 1940s. It was deconsecrated in 1975 so it could be used for non-religious purposes. Beginning in April 2005, that purpose was to be the home of the Centre Nacional de Supercomputació — the Barcelona Supercomputing Center. It’s an unusual setting for a data center, which is part of the reason it has gained such notoriety as a destination not just for researchers across the European Union, but also for tourists looking for something a little off the beaten Barcelona path.

The Center is home to MareNostrum (“our sea”) 4, currently the most powerful supercomputer in Spain and a critical component of both the 13-supercomputer Spanish Supercomputing Network and seven-supercomputer pan-European Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe (PRACE). It became operational in June 2017, inheriting its tasks from the three previous generations of MareNostrum, the first of which was built in 2004. Installing the facility inside the chapel was a product of necessity. It was the only building on campus large enough to house the computing center. However, the value of the new location was not lost on the team behind the effort.

Aware of the unique setting for their supercomputing facility — such places more often resemble warehouses and storage facilities — those in charge of the project designed it with an eye toward promoting it as a public space and showpiece on top of housing the university’s high performance computing (HPC) equipment. Tours are free, conducted in multiple languages, and are promoted on the Center’s website (but should be booked in advance). The glass entrance, which is watched over by a stone Olmec head and shaded by trees, leads into a commons area often used for classes and events for visiting schoolchildren. These sessions cover any number of topics, such as computing history, the role of computers in research, and hands-on coding, building, and electronics activities.

Through another door and past security is the supercomputer floor itself, situated inside the one-time chapel and enclosed in glass to protect it from dust and debris and make it possible to better regulate temperature. Supercomputers emit a huge amount of heat, and building an efficient, sustainable cooling system is one of the most important aspects of designing such a facility. The interior room affords visitors a chance to observe MareNostrum from several angles, including eye-level, a sunken, wrap-around walkway that affords views of the below-floor cabling and cooling system, and a mezzanine and catwalk for views from above. A small theater enables facility managers to hold conferences and project short videos detailing the construction process and the projects currently making use of MareNostrum’s processing power.

Those projects come from across the EU and showcase just how diverse the fields of study that can benefit from the use of high performance computing resources have become. Some of the current projects running on MareNostrum include: research into the creation of personalized medicine, in which researchers are able to analyze illness and disease at the genomic level to design customized medicine based on the chemical, biological, and genetic make-up of an individual; simulations studying molecular movement, improved wind farm design, celestial mapping, and nanodesign; and atomic modeling to create new, stronger materials.

MareNostrum is also assisting in designing and simulating MareNostrum 5, the next generation of the supercomputer, scheduled to be installed at the Center near the end of 2020. In particular, MareNostrum 4 is being used to conceptualize and model a faster, more energy efficient prototype. When MareNostrum 5 comes online, it will have 200 petaflops peak performance, a seventeen-fold increase in computing power over MareNostrum 4 which will make the 5th generation version a contender among the fastest supercomputers in the world. But don’t worry about the fate of MareNostrum 4 — one of the highlights of the Barcelona Supercomputing Center is their hall of history. Lining the walls of this passage are components from every supercomputer that has called the Polytechnic University of Catalonia home, including all previous MareNostrum iterations.

As announced by President Andrew Hamilton in spring 2019, NYU is in the process of designing a new HPC facility to serve the University’s growing research computing needs. Coincidentally, MareNostrum 1 was coming online at roughly the same time as NYU’s Max, which in 2005 was rated the fastest supercomputer in New York City and one of the top 100 in the world. While not everyone has a spare deconsecrated chapel handy to help them secure multiple “most beautiful data center in the world” awards, the Barcelona Supercomputing Center can still be regarded as a benchmark not just for beautiful design, but for how a data center can be designed to engage the public and provide a public forum for educating students, researchers, and tourists on the integral part computing resources play in research across nearly every discipline.

While there is often friendly rivalry between major HPC centers, at the core of every facility, every machine, every bundle of cables, is the mission to enable research with benefits that will reach far beyond any one university, cluster, or country. From medicine to materials to climatology, the world’s supercomputing centers — be they in Beijing, Barcelona, or Brooklyn — form a research network that connects them all with the greater world.

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