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Dr. Francesc Subirada

Associate Director, Barcelona Supercomputing Center and Council Member, PRACE

Catalonia’s role in the PRACE (Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe) project, an initiative to build a new supercomputing facility, is strategically important for our country. According to Dr. Subirada, the PRACE initiative will put Europe in a respectable second place in supercomputing, ranking behind only the USA.

Catalonia’s role in the PRACE (Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe) project, an initiative to build a new supercomputing facility, is strategically important for our country. The project, officially launched last June in a ceremony held at Pedralbes Palace, in Barcelona, will position Europe at the vanguard of supercomputing facilities.

Catalonia’s participation can be traced back to the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC), led by Dr. Francesc Subirada and Dr. Mateo Valero—specifically, to MareNostrum, which in 2004, was the EU’s fastest supercomputer.  

How was the PRACE project born?

The fragmented supercomputing resources in Europe and the lack of coordination among centers running these resources were an obstacle to European competiveness. From this perspective, since 2004, various European countries have devised initiatives to coordinate existing facilities, and, since 2007, to create a single, pan-European facility that could compete with those on other continents. This phase culminated in the inauguration of the legal body PRACE AISBL.

Who are the member states?

PRACE currently has 20 members, four of which will install a supercomputer on their territory: Germany, France, Italy and Spain. The remaining members comprise Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Finland, Greece, Holland, Ireland, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and the UK.

How is it funded?

The main members are contributing a combined sum of €400 million for installing and operating the supercomputers. Add to that another €100 million from the European Commission and from the remaining members, which are earmarked for R&D and logistical tasks related to getting the PRACE center up and running.

What will this new European facility mean for Catalonia?

One of the European supercomputers will be installed in Barcelona, between 2012 and 2013. We believe that this is of strategic importance for Catalonia, which will once again be at the vanguard of science and global innovation. It will be a new scientific facility of European scope that will attract talent and create wealth here at home.

Are there scientists or other professionals in Catalonia with the technical expertise that a supercomputer of this scale demands?

In Catalonia we have world renowned communications and information technology specialists that are, without any doubt, capable of running, and performing research on, a computer of this class.

Will the new facility lead to creation of new specializations?

It may create new specializations, but at any rate, we’ll be hiring new professionals in very intensive areas of expertise.

What types of life sciences projects could be done at the PRACE facility?

Computer modeling is a key tool for life sciences projects. To date, more than 400 projects in this area have harnessed MareNostrum, the current supercomputer at the BSC.

The new processing capabilities of the European supercomputer will enable major advances: for example, in developing new therapeutic strategies based on genomic data. This new processing power will help us face challenges such as processing the data from the genomes of 500 leukemia patients to identify the genetic factors most relevant to the pathology; determining the genetic bases of complex diseases such as diabetes; and identifying the metagenomes of symbionts in humans.

It will also help to improve drug design—namely, in studying molecular targets, as we’ll be able to perform more in depth studies of the interactions between proteins and other molecules. Lastly, it will help in emerging therapeutic areas, such as oligonucleotide-based therapies, in which we combine bioinformatics techniques with simulation algorithms and laboratory measurements.

Who will be Europe’s main competitors?

Without a doubt, the USA is the leader in supercomputing. With the PRACE initiative, Europe will put itself in the respectable position of second place, although we mustn’t forget that China is advancing at lightening speed. At the same time, PRACE was devised to create an environment that will spark the creation of European companies that can design and build supercomputers, so that we don’t have to acquire them from the USA, as we have to date.

How will the new computer differ from MareNostrum, currently operated by the BSC?

The BSC is currently working on a research project called MareIcognition, whose objective is to define the final architecture of the PRACE supercomputer that will be located in Barcelona. The computer’s power will be measured in petaflops—in other words, it will be between ten to 100 times more powerful than MareNostrum.

What role will companies—especially, small and medium-sized ones—have in this facility? Won’t they be far removed from its use?

Installation of the supercomputer will provide work to local companies. In terms of the actual use of the supercomputer, let me just say that while these types of facilities can solve big problems, the problems themselves don’t necessarily have to come from big companies!

Related news: Spanish government invests 100 million euros to bring most powerful supercomputers in Europe to Barcelona (11/6/2010)

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