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FARE INSIEME - Ep. 188 - Cineca, that Italian excellence that writes the future starting from alliances

«We are an engine of knowledge innovation»



It is the largest supercomputing centre for scientific and technological research in Italy and one of the most important worldwide. And it was born in the name of alliances that were unthinkable in the past. Discovering Cineca and that research that shapes the future. Giampaolo Colletti interviews Francesco Ubertini and Alessandra Poggiani, Chairman and General Director of Cineca, respectively, for FARE INSIEME

by Giampaolo Colletti

To join forces and connect the dots. This is what teamwork and overall vision are all about. Beyond the fences, beyond the clichés, beyond the partisan visions that do not allow us to understand the big picture. Already in the 1960s there were those who thought big and outside the box. At the time, time was moving very quickly, marked by the economic boom and the need to look far ahead. The starting whistle of a match that has never stopped being played starts on a sultry midsummer day. A new way of thinking about research and ultimately the future was born on the 14th July, 1967 and not far from the Two Towers, in Bologna, which was a pioneering city in academic studies with its historic university. An agreement was stipulated within those centuries-old walls of the rectorate of the University of Bologna for the establishment of the inter-university consortium for the management of the electronic computing centre of north-eastern Italy. An agreement between the rectors of the Alma Mater Studiorum, the University of Florence, the University of Padua and the representative of the university of economics and commerce and foreign languages and literatures of Venice. The agreement was formalised the following day among the canals of Venice with the drafting of the consortium's deed of incorporation.

The Cineca consortium profile
. Cineca was thus established, which today is the largest Italian computing centre and among the most important in the world. It offers parallel computing, artificial intelligence (AI), networks and development of information systems for universities, research and ministries, agencies and public companies. It is a public body governed by private law registered in the register of public administrations. A story made up of many stories. Because many have joined the inter-university consortium over time. Over 70 Italian universities, the Ministry of Education and Merit and the Ministry of University and Research. And then again over 45 national public institutions. The headquarters is in Casalecchio di Reno, a town of thirty-five thousand souls in the Bologna area, the third most populous municipality in the metropolitan city. We are north of Bologna, in that motorway junction that looks to Milan, to Europe, to the whole world. One story, many stories, we said before. Because Cineca is also based in Milan, Rome, Naples, Chieti and Palermo with a workforce of 1200 people and an annual turnover of 100 million euros. Its main activity is support to the academic scientific community: it provides computing services in Italy and beyond. Cineca is supercomputing. Ever since its establishment. Even more. It is the most important supercomputing centre for scientific research in Italy, as well as one of the most important worldwide. The first Italian supercomputer was installed in September 1969. It was an extraordinary time. Those were times when the future was looked at with optimism, with enthusiasm, sometimes with naivety. Only two months earlier man had landed on the Moon. And back in those days nothing was impossible. The supercomputer was a CDC 6600. At the time it was the fastest computer in the world available on the market. But pay attention. It was not something static because that supercomputer continues to acquire very high-power processors. «Cineca was born thanks to the fact that four universities decided at the time to join forces to equip themselves with the first supercomputer. Around the world, those who innovated - at the time only for research activities - found it difficult to equip themselves with cutting-edge infrastructure. Without joining forces it was not possible all alone. Today Leonardo is the twentieth supercomputer that we have managed. This element defines some key aspects. We were born by integrating the most advanced digital technologies and in particular by supercomputing». This is what Francesco Ubertini, Chairman of Cineca, says.

What the Cineca consortium does
. “Research metalworkers”, they could defined themselves. The one that is continuous, distributed, interconnected, concrete in its ability to generate progress. «We are an engine of knowledge innovation. We work with universities and research centres and this means being at the centre of the country's future. We are able to provide tools to ferry the digital transformation of the public knowledge system, to provide open and accessible infrastructures for researchers and put this into a system to provide cutting-edge services», says Alessandra Poggiani, General Director of Cineca. Health, climate, cybersecurity, privacy. What is striking is a research that becomes an expression of everyday life. «Every day, through the use of our supercomputing systems, new drug formulations are discovered, environmental or meteorological catastrophes are predicted in real time, genomic analyses for autoimmune diseases are monitored, what happens underground is simulated to identify possible deposits. All this is difficult to talk about and without supercomputing it is difficult to accomplish», says Poggiani. «The technologies have changed, but our nature has remained unchanged. Over time we have developed a series of services for digital technologies», specifies Ubertini. What doesn't change is the need to be on the frontier. «By working for the knowledge education system we cannot fall behind. We are the technological instrument of research in Italy, today with a perimeter that has expanded. What matters are not (just) the platforms, the technologies, the tools. Multidisciplinary skills make the difference», continues Poggiani. Thus, Cineca becomes an enabling factor also on the new frontiers of generative AI. Leonardo, which was inaugurated in November 2022, is the fourth computer in the world, but number 2 for artificial intelligence applications. We are now working on quantum computing as the technological frontier of the supercomputers of the future. Europe has decided to equip itself with six quantum computers and one will be at Cineca. A reminder of the first calculator. What is difficult to explain is the speed with which systems are evolving. An extraordinary speed marked by a continuous contamination. Poggiani repeats it like a mantra. «The more digitalisation becomes an everyday fact, the more the less scientific disciplines must accompany development because they have the opportunity to design the interaction». The future knocks on our doors and brings with it a mosaic of colours.

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