The School of Life Sciences and Facility Management at the University of Applied Sciences in Zurich (ZHAW) has set up an own high-performance computing environment based on highly modern server and storage systems from HPE. The on-premise solution is highly scalable and can be managed by a small in-house HPC team. It provides researchers and students with significantly more opportunities for mathematical modelling, numerical simulations and data analyses and thus allows for a more in-depth study of biological, chemical and physical systems.
“Digital methods are becoming indispensable for gaining new scientific insights into a whole range of questions as well as for understanding the structures and characteristics of physical systems”, says Dr Pascal Häussler, head of the High Performance Computing (HPC) team known in-house as the Digital Lab established three years ago at the School of Life Sciences and Facility Management (LSFM). The driving force behind the establishment of an HPC offering at the ZHAW campus in Wädenswil was the researchers who were increasingly finding that their workstations were quickly reaching the limits of what was possible when processing large data sets and working in demanding questions and models. “After an experimental initial phase, it became clear that we needed to invest more time in HPC and that an in-house cluster environment for HPC tasks was necessary. The biggest challenge we faced was limited resources as our team was only made up of me and two other employees. We were aware that rushing into something like high-performance computing wasn’t going to work. As the saying goes, we had to make sure we could walk before we could run”, explains Dr Pascal Häussler.
At the start of the project, the small team contacted the HPC specialists at ETH Zurich for advice. Dr Pascal Häussler: “This collaboration was extremely valuable and saved us considerable time. The fact that ETH also uses HPE ProLiant servers and HPE Apollo racks encouraged us to build our cluster with these products, not least because we had already had success with HPE hardware in the past. As a result of our limited team, we needed strong partners to help us, and we found them in Bechtle and HPE. During a kick-off meeting with HPE’s HPC specialists, we defined the hardware specifications for the compute nodes and a general purpose Linux cluster was deemed the best solution to fulfil the heterogenous needs of our five institutes. It was also important for us that the system could be managed by our small team.” As a result, 32 HPE ProLiant XL230k Gen10 and DL380 Gen10 servers, two HPE Apollo 4510 Gen10 storage systems, two Mellanox InfiniBand EDR switches and two latest generation HPE Apollo k6000 chassis were purchased with several existing Gen9 ProLiant servers also integrated into the cluster. The performance data and simple hardware setup resulting from all switches and fabrics being integrated into the Apollo chassis were both key benefits.
HPC methods are critical for the success of research at the School of Life Sciences and Facility Management at the ZHAW’s Wädenswil campus.
Dr Pascal Häussler sums up the ZHAW’s HPC project as a complete success. “Thanks to Bechtle and HPE’s support, we were able to achieve our project goals on time and on budget.” When asked about the most critical factors for success when opening an HPC Competence Centre at a university, the HPC head says: “One aspect is the infrastructure, but just as important is building up expertise in methods and raising awareness among potential in-house users.” The LSFM School’s new HPC infrastructure is already being used extensively by researchers and students. Typical applications include algorithmic processing of genome data sets, molecular modelling for biotechnology, current calculations for bioreactors and machine learning. Thanks to the new HPC infrastructure based on HPE hardware and the increasing expertise in methods, new fields of application are emerging in all research areas at the department.
Dr Robert Vorburger, head of the Knowledge Engineering research group and the ZHAW Data Science Laboratory stresses the strategic importance of high-performance computing for the ZHAW. “The ability to get to grips with HPC and successfully use it in research and education is becoming key for any university with a strong focus on STEM subjects. The Digital Lab opens up a wide range of opportunities for researchers and students to build up their knowledge and practical experience in dealing with the digital methods of high-performance computing.” And these skills are in high demand. “In bio-medical, pharmaceutical, other life science industries and facility management, employees who are skilled in understanding data management, modelling and simulation will be in high demand”, says the head of the Digital Lab, Pascal Häussler. The practice-oriented university is therefore offering new courses with a focus on HPC and the Masters programme Applied Computational Life Sciences at the ZHAW Wädenswil campus is training the data scientists and simulation experts of the future.