The origins of the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre (1991)

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Institutional Communication Service

4 April 2022

The CSCS was founded in Manno in 1991, following a fervent debate that reflected the key features of the Swiss federalist model while also revealing its ambitions, challenges and contradictions. Later, it was relocated to Lugano, just 2 km from USI's university campus. A recently published paper by Paolo Bory, Ely Lüthi and Gabriele Balbi traces its history from 1985 to 1992, based on a vast corpus of primary sources collected in institutional, private and national archives. We spoke with one of the authors of this historical reconstruction, Professor Gabriele Balbi of USI Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society.

Professor Balbi, the paper is entitled "A story of friendship and misunderstanding": why? 

"A story of friendship and misunderstandings" is a phrase used by Giuseppe Buffi in his speech during the CSCS inauguration ceremony on 1 October 1992, referring to the various mishaps surrounding the arrival of the computing centre in Ticino.

The history of the CSCS dates back at least to 1985. It is made up of friendships because, in the 1980s, the Swiss Italian-speaking region aspired to have an academic institution in its territory, and such ambition was immediately embraced by the members of the universities and ETHs across the Alps. The members of the various working groups charged with assessing the project's feasibility were always accommodating in this regard. However, it is also a story of miscommunications for multiple reasons. There was underlying scepticism in the working groups and among the people of Ticino for fear that the region would not be able to host a project of this magnitude, the first of its kind. Indeed, it should not be forgotten that, before the CSCS, there were no academic institutions in Southern Switzerland, where agriculture and industry prevailed.

Misunderstandings and ambiguities also concerned the complications linked to the centre's location, with various problems from a political and legal point of view adding to the general climate of scepticism. For example, architects and designers from the region felt excluded from the project, which provoked a series of economic and political disputes.

However, friendship prevailed: the desire to establish the CSCS in the Swiss Italian-speaking region was very tangible, especially on the part of ETH Zurich and its president at the time, Hans Bühlman. It was thanks to him and the work he did together with several other players, including Buffi himself, Flavio Cotti and Fulvio Caccia, that the CSCS opened in Manno in 1991.

Why build an ETH Zurich computing centre in Ticino?

The idea of a national computing centre was born before the beginning of this story. When, in 1985, the Federal Council decided to allocate a fund for the country's IT development and the purchase of a state-of-the-art supercomputer, it initially thought of assigning it to either the EPFL or the ETHZ. However, both ETHs wanted this new supercomputer, and since no agreement could be reached between the parties, a new institution was created. However, it was not easy since this new entity could not be independent because it needed significant funding. ETHZ made a substantial financial contribution to this and, conversely, to creating the CSCS, which is still an intrinsic part of ETHZ today.

For ETHZ, the CSCS immediately represented an excellent opportunity to separate its activities and manage its spaces better: since the centre officially became operational in 1991, ETHZ has moved all its external activities, i.e. the renting of space and computing time to other academic institutions and companies, to the CSCS, keeping only its internal activities in Zurich, i.e. in-house research activities. This has enabled them to improve the management of their computing capacities and to expand their range of computing space for other institutions.

However, ETHZ's interest in the project is not the only important factor: establishing the computing centre in Sothern Switzerland has facilitated the creation of international connections and collaborations. The CSCS was also conceived as a bridge to bring Swiss academic institutions closer to the rest of the world, starting with northern Italy and moving through Europe to Japan. These collaborations have allowed the Swiss Italian-speaking region to open up to the national and international scene: in the article, we highlight, for example, the significant relationship with Japan, in particular with the company NEC. The first supercomputer purchased for CSCS was produced by this company, with which in the years to follow, the CSCS has forged strong ties that have even led it for some time to be a development centre for NEC.

What does digital federalism mean?

Federalism is a typical Swiss trait. It is about always trying to help each other and making sure that each region has similar opportunities. However, digital federalism is more of an ongoing process than a given. As written in the paper's introduction, digital federalism means a continuous effort to balance automation, authority and autonomy. The case of the CSCS perfectly illustrates how digital innovation, like many other fields, is always linked to political decisions and economic, cultural, and social aspects that influence not only its use but, above all, its impact on the territory. In setting up the CSCS, certain founding principles of federalism, such as the decision-making autonomy of the cantons and solidarity between federal, academic and regional institutions, were put to the test by digitalisation, particularly by the urgent need to keep up with other European countries. This project carried technological value - even if the CSCS did not have a significant impact on the academic world in its first years - but above all, its value was political, in the sense that it has been implemented by following and testing principles, those of federalism, which are not always easy to pursue.

In the 1980s, Ticino was the least equipped region in terms of IT and digital infrastructure and, as mentioned, had no universities: awarding the national computing centre to Ticino meant re-establishing a certain balance with the French-speaking and German-speaking parts of Switzerland. 'Digital federalism' refers to this phenomenon, to the desire to decentralise new digital infrastructures such as supercomputers as far as possible and to make as many people benefit from them in different parts of the country. For this reason, there has often been talk of an "act of solidarity" toward Ticino.

And it was also in the spirit of federalism that, together with the purchase of a new supercomputer, the credit allocated by the Federal Council in 1985 also gave rise to a national university network named SWITCH, which we still use today and which links all the Swiss academic institutions. Both the CSCS and SWITCH can rightly be regarded as bridges connecting and drawing together various parts of Switzerland. 
 

What is the value of retracing the relatively recent history of the CSCS?

The CSCS plays an essential part in the history of Ticino: it was the first university institution with national and international ties, which later paved the way for USI and, more generally, for the intellectual growth of the region. Moreover, it provided industrial and agricultural Southern Switzerland with a new opportunity in academia and research, which were also reflected in the residents, offering them new educational and work opportunities.

It is also for this reason that Buffi himself, in his inaugural speech, said: "I think that one day, a detailed story of the awarding of CSCS to Ticino must be written down, so as to provide an illustrative example of what can happen in our local reality". We have tried to fulfil Buffi's wish. Too often, when thinking about the CSCS, one thinks of the political and economic circumstances that marked its foundation, thus considering only the negative sides of the story and neglecting the positive ones, which, even today, continue to be of great importance for our region. Of course, it was essential to write its history. Still, it was just as important (and perhaps even more so) to do so while relying on unexplored historical sources preserved in various archives, including those of the CSCS and the ETHZ.

Retracing this history is also significant because it is a tale of controversy and indifference: there has been so much disinterest in this centre, especially on the Ticino side, and it is, therefore, essential to remember the context of its birth together with all the positive effects it has had (and is still having) on our region.