Q&A: Medieval University of Pisa embraces virtualization technology

The University of Pisa is a medieval institution that was built to last. One of the oldest and well-established universities in the world, and home to the teachings of the famous Galileo Galilei, the University of Pisa proves that innovation is key to not only staying alive, but thriving.

Fast forward 700 hundred years. Today the University of Pisa embraces technology. Now it is no longer about telescopes or thermometers, but about scientific computing, virtualization and high-performance computing. 

“The University of Pisa is a campus in the sense that [its] faculties are spread all over the town,” said Maurizio Davini (pictured, left), chief technology officer of the University of Pisa. “A medieval town like Pisa poses a lot of problems from the infrastructural point of view. So, we have worked a lot in the past to try to adapt a medieval town to the latest technologies advancements …  at a certain point, we decided to try to understand if VMware virtualization would be good also for scientific computing. Why? Because at the end of the day, the requests that we have from our internal users is flexibility.”

Davini’s team discovered that virtualization would help them keep the innovation going. So they designed their new IT systems with virtualization in mind and chose VMware for their core database and server systems. They used VMware to create a cluster split across multiple sites, and they also concentrated on virtual storage and hyperconverged systems to increase flexibility and reliability. 

Davini and Thierry Pellegrino (pictured, right), vice president of workloads and solutions at Dell EMC and vice president and general manager of HPC at Dell Technologies, spoke with Stu Miniman, host of theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s livestreaming studio, during VMworld. They discussed the University of Pisa’s infrastructure, GPUs, and virtualization’s flexibility. (* Disclosure below.)

[Editor’s note: The following has been condensed for clarity.]

One of your historical teachers, Galileo, taught at the university. So phenomenal history. Help us understand, what does that encompass? 

Davini: During the last 20 years, the university has done a lot of effort to build an infrastructure that was able to develop and deploy the latest technologies for the students. So, for example, we have a private fiber network covering all the town, 65 kilometers of a dark fiber that belongs to the university, four data centers, one big and three little centers connected today at 200-gigabit ethernet.

Maurizio, let’s get in specifically to how you’re partnering with Dell. You’ve got a strong background in the [high-performance computing] space, working with supercomputers. What is it that you’re turning to Dell and their ecosystem to help the University with? 

Davini: We have several systems for doing HPC — traditional HPC that are based on a Dell Technologies software. We have a strong relationship with Dell Technologies developing solutions to leverage the latest technologies to scientific computing, and this has helped a lot during the research that has been done during this pandemic. 

Pellegrino: Every time we have new technologies that are to be evaluated, of course, we spend time evaluating in our labs, but we make it a point to share that technology with Maurizio and the team at the University of Pisa. That’s how we find some of the better usage models for customers, help to tune some configurations, whether it’s on the processor side, the GPU side, the storage, and the interconnect. 

Thierry, you and I had a conversation earlier in the year when VMware was really gearing their full GPU suite. VMware was talking a lot about AI solutions and how this is going to help. What is it that this enables them [customers] and how Dell and VMware bring those solutions to bear? 

Pellegrino: Can you believe that only, on average, 15 to 20% of GPUs are fully utilized? So, when you think about the amount of technology that’s at our fingertips and especially in a world today where we need that technology to advance research and scientific discoveries, wouldn’t it be fantastic to utilize those GPUs to the best of our ability? 

And it’s not just GPUs. I think the industry has, in the IT world, leveraged virtualization to get to the maximum recycles for CPU and storage and networking. Now you’re bringing the GPU in the fold and you have a perfect utilization and also flexibility across all those resources. 

Maurizio, I want to hear from your standpoint, virtualization and HPC. You know, the AI type of uses there. What value does this bring to you?

Davini: At a certain point that we decided to try to understand if VMware virtualization would be good also for scientific computing. Why? Because at the end of the day, their request that we have from our internal users is flexibility. Flexibility in the sense of being fast in deploying, being fast to reconfiguring, trying to have the latest feats on the software side, especially on AI research. 

Our researchers ask us for flexibility and [they] want to be able to have the maximum possible flexibility in configuring the systems. We can deploy more test clusters on the visual infrastructure in minutes, or we can use GPUs inside the infrastructure very fast to do tests of new algorithms for deep learning. And we can use faster storage inside the virtualization to see how certain algorithms would behave. And also our internal developer can leverage the latest feats in storage, like NVMe. And this is why at a certain point we decided to try visualization as a base for HPC and scientific computing, and we are happy. 

Pellegrino: In this day and age, as I stated at the beginning, there’s so much technology, so much infrastructure available that flexibility at times trumps the raw performance. So, when you have two different research departments, two different portions, two different parts of the company looking for an environment, no two environments are going to be exactly the same. So you have to be flexible in how you aggregate the different components of the infrastructure.  

Thierry, what things are you drawing customers to really dig in?  

Pellegrino: Yeah, cost savings. We talked about flexibility. We talked about utilization. You don’t want to have a lot of infrastructure sitting there and just waiting for a job to come in once every two months. And then there’s also the world we live in. We all live our life here through a video conference or at times through the interface of our phone and being able to have this web-based interaction with a lot of infrastructures. And, at times, the best infrastructure in the world makes things simpler and easier. 

Watch the complete video interview below, and be sure to check out more of SiliconANGLE’s and theCUBE’s coverage of VMworld. (* Disclosure: Dell Technologies Inc. sponsored this segment of theCUBE. Neither Dell Technologies nor other sponsors have editorial control over content on theCUBE or SiliconANGLE.)

Photo: SiliconANGLE

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