March 12, 2012 - by Simone Ulmer

It was just over two years ago that work began on building the new computer centre in Lugano-Cornaredo. Where there used to be an old bus depot, now there is a modern complex comprising two buildings. One is a concrete cube which will house the national supercomputers. The new computer centre is a highly flexible building, well thought-out down to the last detail and future-proofed in its design, so that it will be able to support the supercomputers for the next 40 years. "The computer building is similar in its complexity to an industrial plant and equally impressive," says Tiziano Belotti, head of Facility Management at CSCS. The hydraulic system alone, he says – the main element of the innovative cooling system for the IT infrastructure, the supercomputers and the building itself – comprises several kilometres of pipework, three dozen pumps and thousands of measuring points which have to be monitored and maintained. "Over the last few months we have been learning how to operate the complex, state-of-the-art infrastructure of the new computing centre and we are very proud to be able to take responsibility for running it.

In front of the computer building stands the modern, five-storey office block into which the approximately 50 employees of CSCS have recently moved. It was built to meet the Minergie eco-standard and is a very contemporary, simple construction, created using materials that do not contain harmful substances. From the reception area on the ground floor, the staircase leading up to the offices is clad in green Andeer gneiss. The stone is emblematic for the twenty-year history of CSCS, from the choice of the site to the development of CSCS over the last five years.

Teamwork and national support led to success

When the Alps were first being formed, Andeer gneiss was pushed northwards from the south. It came under great pressure from the east and the west and went through a metamorphosis which resulted in the beautiful stone we know today. CSCS has also gone through a metamorphosis during its history: whereas, during its early years, it struggled to find its identity, in recent years it has been transformed into a globally-important, internationally-networked computer centre. Key factors in this transformation have been the international team with all its expertise, the open and innovative approach taken by CSCS to new developments and the High-Performance Computing and Networking (HPCN) strategy that is being supported by the Swiss government. An important contribution to its success has also been made by numerous organisations and individuals in Switzerland and in the canton of Ticino who recognised the vital role of CSCS.

On the upper floors, the new offices promise to provide everything that the CSCS team needs in order to be able to continue to work as successfully as it has done so far. There are spacious hallways by the staircase where employees can meet and chat.  From there, you go into the offices and on along more corridors arranged like the spokes of a windmill, leading to more offices and finally to the glazed front of the building. Le Corbusier colours in the hallways create a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. The offices are well lit, with floor-to-ceiling windows, and are painted in plain, neutral white.

The staff had their first experience of their new "home away from home" on 10 February and celebrated with a housewarming lunch. Maria Grazia Giuffreda, head of user support, says: "I am truly impressed by what advanced construction technology and environmentally-friendly design have been able to achieve. I see the new supercomputer centre literally as a new beginning for CSCS, the result of a lot of hard work over the past few years, and offering us the prospect of a challenging and rewarding adventure during future generations of supercomputing."

The staff will first have to get used to their new premises, but the modern, light-filled building should make that easy. Computational scientist John Biddiscombe says: "Everything about the building smacks of the 21st century and one is left with a feeling of awe that this is our new home  - and yes, we do sometimes work long into the night." Nevertheless, there is always something strange and unpredictable about new things, so when asked how he feels in the new building, he replies: "Ask again in mid-summer if our new home has lived up to expectations, when we have experienced living in it under all conditions."

Moving the supercomputers – a logistical challenge

The staff are definitely not going to be taking it easy: over the next few weeks, they have to prepare the entire supercomputing and data storage infrastructure to be ready for the move, which will take place between 21 and 30 April. All the computers have to be shut down, packed up and taken by lorry into the new building, where they must then be reassembled. That is indeed a logistical challenge.

As well as the computer cabinets, there are thousands of metres of cables and connections to dismantle, pack away, re-lay in the new building and connect up. While some supercomputers will be out of action for a few days because of this, it must be ensured that the MeteoSchweiz computer keeps running without any interruption. After all, this not only supplies Switzerland with the latest weather forecasts. Its computations are also used as the basis for risk assessments, be it when natural disasters threaten or if there is a chemical or nuclear reactor accident. If people need to be evacuated, the decision on which places need to be evacuated depends partly on the wind and the weather.

Open Day in September

In September the public will have the opportunity to visit the new computer centre during the Open Day which forms part of the official opening celebrations.