Sparks

Back to the Future 4

 By Eniday Staff

With the HPC4 (High Performance Computing) Eni’s six-legged dog enters the future with the industry most powerful super computer.
For the occasion, we go back in the heart of the Pianura Padana, in Ferrera Erbognone which houses it: The Green Data Center. From the outside, it looks as a giant bunker; inside there’s an efficient and sustainable calculation system capable of making 22,4 million of billions of operations per second. 22,4 Petaflop, for the experts.
It used to process seismic data and simulate oil and gas reserves. For the record, the combination of geophysics and computer science, “seismic imaging” and HPC, together with the extraordinary talent of Eni explorers, has contributed to all of the most recent exploration discoveries around the world. Zohr, but not only Zohr…

You can’t see anything, only the outline of the sports centre with an outdoor pool and a yellow waterslide, a level crossing and a train station with an old-style platform. Around here the autumn never lets you down and the Green Data Center emerges from the fog suddenly, when you are already at the gate. It looks like a huge bunker, a sort of Fort Knox, if we were not in the middle of Lomellina …

Before they built this great spaceship, resistant to intrusion, earthquakes, fires, floods and acts of terrorism, there was a rice paddy here. All around there are still rice fields, meadows, narrow streets, ditches, small villages with a few hundred souls, roundabouts, channels, quiet, a little river (the Erbognone) that splits the plain in two and a few clusters of trees that are lost in the indistinct Lower Pavese countryside, we might be in Emilia or in Piedmont without even realising it.

And the town of Ferrera Erbognone has always meant rice; in 1912 a massive strike of rice workers led to the arrest of the “pasionaria” Maria Provera, which is the basis for the famous folk song “Il 24 di maggio a Ferrera” (also known as the Song of Maria Provera).

Eni decided to build its IT citadel here for a couple of practical reasons. First, it was an area the company owned ​​ not far from the San Donato headquarters; and second, fifty metres beyond the fence is the EniPower power plant, the first new plant to be built in Italy after the liberalisation of the electricity market, which feeds the energy required (redundant) to the data centre, eliminating the losses typical of the grid (5-6%, according to the Energy Authority) and ensuring total control (production and consumption) within the group.

In this way the municipality of Ferrera, the two bars of the village, the few shops, its houses and farms have access to the world’s fastest internet connections because “the spaceship” is directly connected to the high bandwidth of all the major telco players. A smart city in Lomellina, who would have thought it!

Eni Green Data Center opened two years ago
Seen it from the outside this fortified town in the shape of a shamrock, or rather two side by side and symmetrical, separated by a twenty-metre wide canyon of grass

Green Data, which opened in 2013, houses all of Eni’s computer systems for information technology management (e.g. 5 million gas bills per month) and especially the processing facilities that engineers call “computational simulation”, the so-called HPC (High Performance Computing) super computers used to process seismic data and simulate oil and gas reserves.

Seen it from the outside this fortified town in the shape of a shamrock, or rather two side by side and symmetrical, separated by a twenty-metre wide canyon of grass, completely independent to ensure structural and logistical continuity. No visible buildings, no huge concrete blocks like a traditional data centre.

Each of the two clovers contains 3 rooms for IT equipment, two for “Standard computing” and a larger one for HPC. But the citadel was designed to house and power up to 30MW of payload at the highest level of reliability “Tier IV”, which I learned was not only a banking policy decided in Basel.

The other thing you notice about a mega building that is built into the ground for safety reasons and topped with artificial hills planted with grass, is the 6 air intake-expulsion funnels whose function, as we shall see later, is very important.

Nicola Bienati, geophysical engineer and Senior Research & Development Project Leader of the six-legged dog, explained to me why Eni, even if it is not a web giant from Silicon Valley, has invested several million euros in such a sophisticated data centre. “We needed to be able to focus on as accurate an image as possible of what lies under the earth’s surface, even at 10-15 kilometres and over an area of hundreds if not thousands of square kilometres, using a technique known as seismic imaging, and to reconstruct these three-dimensional images using sophisticated mathematical models.”

And then…? “The complexity of the models that we use to transform data into images in the time required,” Bienati continued, “means that we cannot simply use a standard personal computer. We need dedicated computing architecture able to do the work of work of thousands of PCs simultaneously.”

Just to explain, the levels of image resolution and the amount of data collected in a typical seismic measuring exercise is measured in terabytes, or several thousand DVDs. So if you want to compete with your rivals, and want to maintain leadership in Exploration, you also need a cutting edge data centre and computer codes, the so-called “processing algorithms”.

Bienati also explains, that Eni is currently a leader in the oil industry worldwide in the development of these “seismic imaging” algorithms. Each code is particularly suitable for the reconstruction of images of the subsurface in specific geological domains. And right here at Ferrera the geophysical data are processed relating to areas in which the six-legged dog program has planned to carry out surveys and the optimal location of exploration wells to minimise the risk of failure (perhaps even to decide in the end not to proceed).

Contrary to what one might imagine, in a modern data centre due to size, the concentration, disposal and transport of heat and overall efficiency, the main problem to be solved, in addition to data management, is the energy used to power the facility systems needed for the cooling of computer systems

Wandering through the corridors and rooms of the Green Data centre you understand that everything has its own logic and nothing is left to aesthetic whim. Computer rooms, the black boards with 7200 servers that operate continuously connected by kilometres of coloured cables, the hundreds of metres of pipes, valves, pumps, pressure gauges, electric cables, columns and counters, dampers for air circulation , flues, water (and air) treatment rooms, the engine room, the ventilation room. And then silence, broken only by the hum of computers in the background.

What is is very striking is the large space needed for a data centre. Bare rooms of reinforced concrete and fire doors that look like the set of a Jack Nicholson movie. The impression is that they have achieved efficiency by working in a vacuum, almost by subtraction.

“With the HPC1 and HPC2 supercomputers, housed in its Green Data Centre, Eni entered the family of systems that can perform trillions of operations per second,” says Marco Bianchi, HPC Knowledge Owner at Eni. “The HPC architecture is very peculiar compared to those adopted by other oil companies, it is a hybrid architecture in which traditional processors operate alongside a particular type of computing accelerator like a GPU (Graphic Processing Unit).” the graphics processors found in laptops, as well as smartphones and tablets.

But above all accelerators are devices designed to speed up processing while maintaining low power consumption, precisely to maximise the battery life of commercial portable devices. “With this hybrid architecture we have reached our target fixed for computing power of 3 petaflops, with an overall consumption of just over one megawatt, an outstanding result at worldwide level,” says Bianchi.

The purists would talk of a PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness, i.e. the ratio of total electricity consumption and the consumption of IT equipment alone) of less than 1.2 (the average of other data centres is 2), but you get the point.

Contrary to what one might imagine, in a modern data centre due to size, the concentration, disposal and transport of heat and overall efficiency, the main problem to be solved, in addition to data management, is the energy used to power the facility systems needed for the cooling of computer systems.

The issue of cooling is very sensitive due to its impact on PUE in places like Silicon Valley, where the tech giants are obliged to consume huge reservoirs of water. At the Green Data Centre the 1.2 performance is obtained by adopting so-called “free-cooling”, a natural air cooling process using a circulation, filtration and treatment system based on the famous six funnels that sprout from the building.

This is also why the other record held by Ferrera Erbognone, together with super fast internet, is the extremely precise weather forecast: the cooling system for the machines and the set temperature of the rooms of the Green Data Centre are continuously calibrated, hour by hour, on the weather. Humidity plays a key role, and here there is no better place than Lomellina where in the middle of fields, among the fog and mosquitoes, you see the most powerful supercomputer in Europe for industrial Oil & Gas production, and one of the largest in the entire oil industry.

For the record, the combination of geophysics and computer science, “seismic imaging” and HPC, together with the extraordinary talent of Eni explorers, has contributed to all of the most recent exploration discoveries around the world. Zohr, but not only Zohr…

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Eniday Staff