ITALY’S AEROSPACE RESEARCH REVITALIZED – USING NEC SX

October 25, 2020

By Giacomo Polosa & Christopher Lazou, HiPerCom

Capua is a fascinating historical small town just north of Naples, southern Italy. In Roman times, it was famous for being the site of a renowned school of Gladiators [the fierce warriors trained to fight often to the death, providing a spectacle during the games at Rome’s Coliseum).

Some two thousand years later, Capua is the site of CIRA, [the National Italian Centre for Aerospace Research], a highly sophisticated and leading- edge technological institution which looks after the progress and innovation of Italy’s aeronautics and space activities.

CIRA was founded in 1984 and became operational in 1989. At its initial launch, the Italian aerospace industries [owned 66.6%] and the Regional Government of Campania [owned 33.3%]. In 1998, a new Joint Stock Consortium was formed, which modified the ownership composition of shares into: Aerospace Industries 32%, Italian Space Agency [ASI] 31%, CNR [National Research Council] 21% and Regional Government 16%.

Musing a little, the inauguration of a supercomputer, an NEC SX-6 with 4 vector processors “per se” is not a unique event, it is rather common, could happen anywhere in the world and unless it is the most powerful in the world, or the most exotic, or built with components that everybody can buy at a corner shop, or powered by solar cells, it is not worth a mention. But if such supercomputer represents a real break-thru in the Italian aerospace research, which made it possible to efficiently and effectively design, develop and use some of the most powerful and sophisticated aerospace test facilities in the World, well, then it is a different story.

CIRA has a remarkable tradition in using vector computing. In the early days, its CDC culture (note that a great part of the initial staff came from Aeritalia, a long time user of CDC Cyber computers) led to the installation of an ETA 10, one of the very few in Europe, which as far as I remember, was never in real production because of lack of software and the early demise of the ETA Company. Later on, a number of CONVEX “mini-supercomputers” were installed and effectively used.

At that juncture, early nineties, the Italian aeronautics and space activities suffered from substantial stagnation. The dramatic lack of national strategy in this field meant that CIRA was constrained for a long time to using a mid- range super-scalar server, for computational resources. As a consequence, CIRA’s staff, which number 270 today, with over 50% graduates in Aeronautics, Physics, Electronics, Mathematics and Informatics, were, let us say, less than fully motivated. The reason was easy to see, as there were no major research activities, no leading-edge computational facilities, and so on].

The appointment of a new President, in 1999, a Professor in aerospace engineering at the university of Naples, with remarkable managerial skills, was an important milestone in CIRA’s history. With an aggressive reorganization programme, a closer coordination with Italian Space Agency [ASI], the other aerospace industries and government bodies, Sergio Vetrella, rapidly brought to CIRA enthusiasm, competence, a new high level of motivation, visibility, as well as national and international recognition. Sergio Vetrella is now also President of ASI and chairman of the board of EREA Consortium [formerly AEREA], which re-integrates the major European aerospace research centres [the Dutch NLR, German DLR, British QINETIQ, Swedish FOA, French ONERA, Spanish INTA and of course CIRA].

The very first step CIRA under Vetrella took, was to identify and acquire a new High Performance Computer. After comparing performances on applications from several well-known and fully qualified vendors, an NEC SX-6 vector parallel supercomputer was selected. Its installation marked a “return to original roots”.

As Pasquale Schiano, head of the computational laboratories of CIRA said: “computational fluid-dynamics and vector computing are intrinsically linked to each other, computational kernels in this field of application are mostly and strongly vector oriented.” Note that though on a much smaller scale, the NEC SX-6 installed at CIRA is using similar technology as the gigantic supercomputer installed in Japan and known as “the Earth Simulator”.

The already intensively used NEC SX-6 computational resource has revitalised Italy’s aerospace research. It has been instrumental in bringing into operation the largest and most up-to-date Icing Wind Tunnel [IWT] in the world; ranked second and third are the IRT – NASA Glenn and BRAITT of Boeing Seattle, respectively.

CIRA IWT is specifically designed for simulating extreme icing conditions for turbo-prop airplanes. Some of you may remember that the European ATR, a French-Italian project for Regional Air Transport – many ATR42 and ATR72 are in service today all over the world – suffered two dramatic accidents in its early days of operation, from unusual icing conditions encountered during flight. Because of its capability of simulating proper flight altitudes and large droplets, CIRA IWT is the only facility of its kind, which to the best of my knowledge follows punctually, the FAA directives for anti-ice certification.

Pasquale Schiano goes on to say: “Computer simulation on the SX-6 optimises the test scheduleÖ.” and he continues: “tests validate the computational codes, and thus simulation remains a significant part of the process, as not all the conditions can be reproduced inside the tunnelÖ”

CIRA runs two other record testing facilities, the PWT, Plasma Wind Tunnel for space vehicles re-usability and aerodynamic heating during re-entry, and the Laboratory for Impact Tests on Aerospace Structures, [LISA].

According to CIRA staff I talked to: “the availability of an efficient up-to- date supercomputer helps motivation, as it makes them feel that they can perform their research work at the same level-playing-field as those of other aerospace research institutions.”

Being an “old timer” in High Performance Computing, I remember that in the very early days [some twenty years ago], someone said that: “Supercomputers are for research and academic institutions what libraries were for the old universities. Researchers, professors and students were then attracted by the quality and quantity of scientific, philosophic and literature books, available in the library of one university rather than another”. Today’s researchers are similarly attracted and motivated by effective and efficient up-to-date computational facilities. Substituting supercomputer facilities for library book collections, I too, fully endorse the above statement. For further details visit: http://www.cira.it Or, contact Giacomo Polosa at: [email protected]

Giacomo Polosa [Dr.] is an independent consultant living in Rome, Italy. He has spent over 40 years in the computer business, mainly with UNIVAC and CONTROL DATA. For many years, he has been President, Europe, of RCI, formerly Research Consortium, founded and run by the late Dick Sherman.

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