Bologna, Italy (2017)

In March 2017 I got invited to the CINECA supercomputing facility in Casaleccio di Reno near Bologna in Italy. They had recently installed their latest system, the Marconi A2 powered by Intel Xeon Phi 7250 CPUs. My colleague Peter and I had worked on the QPhiX library which explicitly targets these type of processors.

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Both of us applied for this two day workshop and got accepted with our talk. Although the workshop started at noon and ended at noon the following day, it was cheaper for us to stay two more nights and take other flights. Fortunately Lenovo covered both the flight and the hotel, so this trip was pretty much a gift. Also we did not have to book anything, we just got a flight ticket send to us.

The flight from Cologne-Bonn airport to Bologna was not very long, and the machine was a rather small machine with 2 + 2 seats per row. At some point we were able to have a view over the majestic Alps:

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At the airport in Bologna we had to figure out which bus to take. At this time there were still roaming charges within the EU, but I booked a package for 2 EUR/day which was really great. Using Google Maps we quickly found a bus, finding the accompanying bus stop turned out to be a bit more difficult, though.

We checked into the hotel, it was very nice for my standards.

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For that day we did not have anything to do in particular, so I just walked around and explored the area a bit. This was a typical street in the neighborhood:

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There are scooters all over the place, and some of the drivers appeared rather reckless. Also the cars seemed rather small, likely due to the higher fuel prices compared to Germany.

An interesting detail are the wires which are just spanned from house to house, just like I have seen in Spain:

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It started to get dark, but I still found a nice park where the cherry trees carried blossoms:

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We had lunch at some local restaurant. In Italy it seems to be customary to have two main courses: The first main course contains carbohydrates like pasta or pizza. Then the second main source contains meat. Peter for instance had a pasta and then some meat balls. Also in that restaurant one would not give a tip, instead there was a service charge for the cutlery, replacing the tip.

In the evening we polished our talk a bit further, but we were mostly happy with it when we left Bonn already.

Breakfast the next morning was interesting. They had eight different types of croissants. Plain one, with powder sugar, with marmelade, with scholocale, with nuts, I lost count. And they had a bunch of cakes and pies for breakfast. Of course there was bread, yogurt and fruits, which is more my type of breakfast. I believe that Peter had a truly Italian breakfast: cigarette and coffee.

The hotel is quite close to CINECA, so we just walked there for around half an hour. We got our name tags and got into the conference room. I did not take any meaningful pictures there. I guess you can imagine a dimmed conference room with small windows. Although the weather was amazing outside, we just sat in this dimmed room.

The first day of the talks were mostly CINECA and Intel employees introducing the new machine, introducing the Knights Landing architecture. Especially the Intel people showed examples of code optimization for this platform and the speedups that one can achive compared to regular Xeon architectures like Broadwell at the time.

There had been performance and stability issues with Marconi A2, and some of the talks shed some light onto the situation. However it seemed that they were not as concerned about it as the users like Peter and myself.

Most people had arrived on that day around noon and directly came to the CINECA building with their luggage. Lenovo had organized a dinner for us, but first they wanted everyone to go to their hotel and check and. To my completely surprise they had organized transportation for us. And not just a bus, but fancy black cars with drivers in suits! Peter and I got assigned to a gentleman with a small Jaguar. It was an amazing ride, I believe this one was my first one in a Jaguar. Even though I believe it to be their smallest model, comparable to the BMW 3-Series, it was one of the smoothest rides I ever had.

At the hotel he opened the doors for us, a luxury I am certainly not used to. He informed us that we will be picked up in around an hour for dinner. As we already had our rooms, we just sat around and did not do much. The drive to the restaurant was as smooth as before, and the Villa Aretusi where we went looked fancy.

During the registration process I was asked about any special dietary requirements and I gave them my unfortunately long list of things. At the restaurant a waiter tried to pronounce my last name, and I only caught onto it the third time. He asked “Are you a vegetable?”, which lead to a funny conversation at the table. The Intel employee from Spain next to me inquired whether I was more the tomato or brokkoli person. Either way, when the food was served there were huge plates with starter dishes. I got a vegetarian version, the Spaniard got one without cheese. It was amazing, and I cannot even remember what all the things were. Buffalo mozarella, toast with roasted vegetables, and many other things. Then I got a soup, after which I was already pretty full. But then I got the first main course, a pasta. And then a second main course, another pasta.

At the end of the dinner I was very happy that I just had to shuffle to the driver and from there the few steps to my hotel room. What an amazing evening!

The next day we were picked up again, this time by another driver. He sported an Audi A8, his jacket read Audi Racing. I inquired whether he had the jacket just because he liked it and he told us that he was actually a ralley driver in his free time and this was just his work car. And you could certainly sense that this guy knew how to drive! Although the Audi A8 is a huge car, he navigated through the thick city traffic completely effortlessly. And in situations where I might have accelerated a bit, he was completely calm. And in other situations where I considered the spaces too narrow, he accelerated and efficiently moved the car through the gaps. And if you know what you do, the 3.0 TDI engine is more than enough to get around quickly.

On the way we picked up another attendee of the conference, he was located in a pension. I moved over to the fifth seat in the car, and I can tell you that it is much less comfortable than the other two in the back. But I guess having five people in an A8 is rather unusual anyway.

At CINECA the guests gave their talks. In an uncalming many of them the speakers were talking about performance issues that they faced with the system. One even did a systematic survey of performance and showed the results, questioning the people from the institute about his findings. Peter and I had noticed that performance on Marconi A2 is like 25 % lower than on a somewhat comparable machine in Jülich and we did not know why. There was a guest from Jülich who informed us that DEEP-ER in Jülich uses water cooling whereas Marconi A2 is just air cooled. And the guy from CINECA added that they had cooling issues at some point and just reduced the clock rate on all the machines. Well, this explains that certainly.

After the second days of talks most people took taxis to get back to the airport. We had another night in the hotel as our flight would only go the next day. We took the opportunity to visit the downtown. One can buy bus tickets in the bus, but one has to pay with coins and there is no change. Alternatively one can buy tickets in these shops that sell stationary, lottery tickets and similar things. Then they cost a bit less. They did not have the price written onto them, so I just did that with a pen, hoping that the reimbursement department of the university would accept that (which they did).

We just walked around the inner city of Bologna for a bit.

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There was a large square, where we had a rest.

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Peter ordered some beer with snacks, he got some olives and chips with it. Lots of people were passing by, this seems to be a place interesting for tourists as well.

There are many stores where you can buy cheese and ham, like this one:

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We also passed the university, a lot of students where hanging in out near it:

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At the evening we went to a pizza place. Of course it is a bit cheesy to have pizza while in Italy, but it was honestly the best pizza I every had. When we entered the restaurant we were informed that the oven was still being heated up and that we would have to wait some fifteen minutes for the wooden fire to burn down in the stone oven. We gladly did so, and the pizza was amazing. One could taste the wood and smoke without it being too much.

The next day we just proceeded to the airport, not much to tell really.


It was an interesting trip, and being spoiled on a business trip was a new experience for me!