"We keep motivating ourselves to be able to provide good, reliable services"
New technologies and personnel from 42 nations: how the LRZ in Garching grows in new fields and builds up new services
The Cerebras CS-2 system features a giant processor, the first cryostat with a superconducting quantum processor. In 2022, the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) not only celebrated its 60th birthday, but also started full steam ahead into its own future and that of IT. "For all these new topics we need highly qualified staff, which in times of a shortages of skilled workers and under the financial constraints of the public service can hardly be found in sufficient numbers," Dr. Jürgen Seidl says, the Head of Central Services at the LRZ, with regard to the changes that come with this development. Bringing artificial intelligence and quantum computing into science and thus improving, simplifying and enriching the everyday life of researchers is only one of the LRZ's goals. Between all the headlines this year, it almost went unnoticed that a lot has happened in the LRZ’S BDS department (user-related services): Munich’s universities are providing courses in person again and are organising hybrid events; students and academic institutions have easy remote access to computer resources and software, to communication networks and cloud services as well as to tools for mobile working and LRZ training courses. “Services like LRZ Sync+Share or Bayern Share are used more often today than in pre-Covid-times. The exchange of data has greatly increased at universities, institutions and at the LRZ, as has the cross-organisational file management," says Dr. Norbert Hartmannsgruber, who heads the BDS department at the LRZ. It is high time for a conversation - and a look back at the year 2022 and the (near) future of the LRZ.
In 2022, many new technologies have reached the LRZ. Are they changing the LRZ and its IT services?
Dr Jürgen Seidl: All of these new issues require highly qualified personnel, which is difficult to find in times of a shortage of skilled workers and given the budgetary framework conditions in the German public sector. The LRZ is therefore trying to become as attractive as possible for international candidates. That's why we took part in the job fair of SC22 in Dallas, the world’s most important supercomputing conference, and we tried to attract qualified candidates there. In my opinion, the new technologies make the LRZ team even more international, diverse and varied. 42 nations are now represented at the LRZ. It is important that we manage to integrate the newcomers well into our centre and to convey the LRZ’s values to them in order for us to continue to be successful and to develop further. I'm absolutely confident that we can do it. Dr. Norbert Hartmannsgruber: With respect to the user-oriented services and services, in short BDS, we have at best some points of contact with research projects when it comes to visualisation and virtual reality. We are mainly responsible for taking care of the infrastructure to ensure reliable basic services such as mail, storage options, remote access and networking. Perhaps artificial intelligence or AI will one day be used to monitor and control hardware and software, perhaps quantum computing will pose new security questions. But all this stell seems a long way off, these technologies haven’t change our everyday lives, at least not yet. Of course, we can see that researchers are focusing on AI in particular and that they are demanding more services in this area, so the corresponding systems were expanded in 2022. But we in BDS are primarily working to ensure that the basic services continue to run reliably and efficiently.
Has new technology been also purchased for this purpose as well? Hartmannsgruber: We have upgraded our media technology systems for the seminar and conference rooms of the LRZ, so that we can better record face-to-face seminars and lectures and simultaneously distribute them online. In addition, we are currently very much involved with Kubernetes. We are now building this middleware to be able to provide cloud and container services for Folio. This is a new management software for libraries, which the LRZ operates and where we contribute to its development and deployment. Kubernetes will also help us in other areas, so that the LRZ and our users can better manage and scale cloud services and environments.
The Covid-19 pandemic has not ended in 2022, but now after two years more and more people are studying, researching and working again in person: Has this new beginning at the LRZ been a success? Hartmannsgruber: The return to teaching face-to-face at universities certainly didn't come as much of a big bang as the lockdown in the pandemic. At that time, systems and network capacities had to be expanded at lightning speed to accommodate virtual lectures and remote access, but the Munich universities are now well equipped for hybrid events. Shortcomings in the Wi-Fi service infrastructure and in media technology equipment remain issues on which we are all working together. We don’t have any statistics on hybrid events because the universities rely on cloud-based Zoom software and the LRZ does not host this program. But in our regular meetings, we have learned that hybrid lectures enormously increase the workload in terms of moderation, content preparation and providing assistance in chatting with and answering questions from online participants. Personally, I have come to appreciate the benefits of remote work over the last few years; whenever I am stuck in a traffic jam, I in fact ask myself why I'm commuting to the LRZ. However, going to work in person still offers the great advantage that one can exchange professional and personal information with colleagues in an open atmosphere. Seidl: The transition back to the office was smooth at the LRZ. Thanks to our extensive service agreement on working remotely, which was developed in close cooperation with the staff council and the management of the BADW, we have a great tool for combining individual needs with the requirements of teamwork. A look at the current regulations in other companies or sectors shows that the LRZ uses a highly flexible model that is not available everywhere.
Has anything changed in the use of IT services or remote working? Hartmannsgruber: I have noticed that services like LRZ Sync+Share and Bayern Share are used more often today than before Covid. File sharing has clearly intensified at universities, institutes and at the LRZ, as has the cross-organisational file management. In addition, learning and teaching using the Moodle system is constantly being expanded: We are constantly optimising the software and platform in response to requests from the universities and integrating services such as LRZ Sync+Share. Our current focus also lies on meeting requirements relating to electronic exams via Moodle.
An important milestone was the first official re-certification of the LRZ - how important is this for the LRZ and for its users? Hartmannsgruber: For our customers and users, the certification is a proof of quality, which has become something of an obligatory requirement for us: After all, they firmly count on it, compliance and security issues are becoming more and more important. We will therefore have to achieve recertification again in order to be able to continue to offer our flagship services. Seidl: The certifications in accordance with the ISO/IEC standards 20000 and 27001 are done, for example, to expand risk management in-house. Current developments show that it is becoming increasingly important to protect against cyberattacks, take precautions against disasters, such as blackouts, and thus ensure the best possible level of information security. A functioning information security management system is essential. Equally significant is the second certification, ISO/IEC 20000, which places the focus on optimising our IT management processes, which includes customer relations as an essential element. After all, it's about recognising the order and serving it as well as possible with services. In my opinion, it is important that both sets of regulations help to document the know-how among our colleagues in order to make processes more transparent. In the long term, we will be able to avoid unnecessary loops and assign clear responsibilities. This means we will have less friction, which will benefit everyone. At the same time, we will always have the freedom to make adjustments to our system if the norm requirements are not suitable for the LRZ, or if they create more work than they bring benefits.
What are your plans for 2023? Seidl: Our primary goal is to fully and quickly integrate our new colleagues into the LRZ and into the teams. At the moment it is unfortunately sometimes the case that communicating background information and providing explanations falls a little short. It will be exciting to see whether we will be able to get through the winter in the current situation without restricting operations. It is also unclear what effects the new 2023 budget will have and whether we will have to reorganise our invoicing. But these issues are not in our hands. Hartmannsgruber: We are becoming more and more networked in Bavaria, we support many cooperations between Bavarian universities with IT services, for example with regard to IT security, multi-factor authentication or documentation platforms. We will continue to develop and expand this in 2023. This is how competence centers and an exchange of experience are created – and the LRZ can also benefit from this. After ten years in operation, we will renew the LRZ CAVE in 2023, replace the current projector with LED panels, and we will work on servers, storage technologies and the networks that form the basis of our IT services. So we will certainly be kept quite busy.
Christmas is coming soon - it's time to make wishes: What do you wish for yourself and for the LRZ? Hartmannsgruber: My wish is that the LRZ maintains its high standards and treats its users as equals. We are innovative and customer-oriented, but, based on our experience, we also speak out when there is something we don't like. I also hope that we – members of staff as well as the management team – can maintain our high level of motivation at the LRZ to provide good, reliable services for our users. That's all. Seidl: I'm looking forward to just relaxing and recharging the batteries - but only once the budget has been closed. Otherwise, all that remains is for me to wish all colleagues and their families happy holidays and a happy new year. Everyone stay healthy!
Dr Norbert Hartmannsgruber, head of BDS, and Dr. Jürgen Seid, head of Zentrale Dienste at LRZ