Unwrapping the storage environment at the University of Pisa

July 12, 2021

At the University of Pisa, HPC leaders select from a menu of Dell Technologies solutions to match the needs of research applications with the right storage performance and economics.

In today’s universities, research often requires massive amounts of data that gets processed in high performance computing clusters. This data-intensive focus dictates that HPC/AI administrators pay special attention to the storage systems they use — with the understanding that one technology never fits all needs.

Some research applications require very fast I/O performance from storage systems with all-flash media, while others have lower performance requirements that can be met with spinning disk. For HPC/AI administrators, the trick is to match the needs of the researchers and their applications with the right storage solutions in terms of performance and economics.

This is the way things are done at the University of Pisa, where the team offers researchers a rich menu of storage solutions from Dell Technologies to ensure that researchers get the performance they need at the right cost for the University.

PowerScale storage

For centralized storage in a VMware-virtualized environment, the University uses Dell EMC PowerScale storage. In the past, the University’s HPC team stored this data in several siloes, because that’s what users wanted, according to Maurizio Davini, the university’s CTO. But today, the HPC team is moving toward a converged central storage facility accessed by virtual HPC systems.

The PowerScale family includes Dell EMC PowerScale platforms and Dell EMC Isilon platforms configured with the PowerScale OneFS operating system. The latest iteration of this environment at the University of Pisa includes Dell EMC PowerScale F200 storage as well as a legacy Dell EMC Isilon H600 hybrid system.

The PowerScale F200 is designed to serve as a cost-effective compact all-flash network-attached storage (NAS) node in a 1U form factor. It can seamlessly co-exist with Isilon storage nodes and can be deployed at the edge, in the data center or in the cloud.

“This is the best platform that we could have for storage utilization,” Davini says. “It is affordable and scalable. At the end of the day, it’s something that we find very easy to use. Our administrators and people are very happy with the platform.”

While delivering performance that is three times that of a legacy platform, the PowerScale platform has proved to be extremely reliable and stable, Davini says. Those characteristics make PowerScale well suited to research simulations. Typically, the workloads hosted in this virtual HPC environment include engineering and chemical simulations, as well as the latest AI and deep learning workloads.

“The stability of PowerScale is incredible,” Davini says. “It’s not so different from Isilon. PowerScale is a sort of Isilon on steroids. It has the same scalability and reliability of the Isilon platform, but now you have a lot of performance, so it is a sort of super Isilon from a customer usage point of view.”

PowerStore storage

The University of Pisa was one of the first organizations to use the new purpose-built Dell EMC PowerStore storage, which blends automation, next-generation technology and a novel software architecture to help organizations address the rapidly growing need for data storage.

The University chose the PowerStore X Series, which provides a VMware-ready storage solution. Using the capabilities of VMware ESXi, PowerStore X models with the AppsON feature give the University the ability to host data-intensive and storage applications directly on the PowerStore system with a storage-based virtualization environment. PowerStore X also gives the University the flexibility of seamless movement of applications between the storage system and external VMware servers.

The University of Pisa selected PowerStore to accelerate its infrastructure modernization efforts in the face of changing remote learning and research demands, according to Davini.

“As we transitioned to remote learning, we needed reliable, scalable technology to provide our 53,000 students and faculty with quick, easy access to critical data and applications at all times, from any location,” he says. “Dell EMC PowerStore is at the center of our IT modernization efforts because it delivers the high performance and availability needed to support leading-edge teaching and research without any downtime or data loss. It’s a game-changer.”

Among other use cases, the University uses Dell EMC PowerStore systems to store scientific computing data and applications for genomics, biology, chemistry, physics and engineering. PowerStore’s NVMe-based, adaptable design delivered a 6x performance improvement on previous storage infrastructure, making applications faster and easier to access. In addition, PowerStore’s deduplication and compression capabilities have helped the university realize 3x capacity savings when compared to its previous storage infrastructure.

By virtualizing IT resources with VMware in the PowerStore environment, the University of Pisa can use resources more cost-effectively and make it easier for IT administrators and end users to deploy, manage and change the infrastructure.

“PowerStore is excellent,” Davini says. “It combines the advantages of cutting-edge storage hardware and software, including easy VMware integration. It gives us the flexibility to define the resources for our users, for our applications, so we can quickly flex to meet changing needs.”

PowerMax storage

The University’s storage infrastructure also includes Dell EMC PowerMax storage to support virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and remote workstations and database workloads.

The PowerMax array offers massive scalability — in terms of performance, capacity, connectivity, LUNs/devices and data services — all with a future-proof architecture featuring end-to-end non-volatile memory express (NVMe), SCM persistent storage, built-in machine learning, seamless cloud mobility and deep VMware integration.

With PowerMax, the university has experienced 5x faster data processing and 80 percent better performance for its essential applications, allowing users to access key research and applications faster than before.

Giving researchers choice

In general numbers, the University manages about two and a half petabytes of total storage, including about a half petabyte of high-performance NVMe storage and 300 terabytes of OneFS storage.

So why have so many different types of storage?

“The idea was to try to have what we think are the best offerings on the storage market for our scale and the applications we run, and to give our researchers different options, so they can get the right performance for their workload,” says Davini. So, we are trying to do our best to give our researchers the best that we can find on the market, and that we can afford in our budget.”

For a closer look at the virtualized HPC environment at the University of Pisa, see the Dell Technologies case study “Capitalizing on virtualization.”

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