How IT powers the ‘God Particle’ experiments

CERN Computer Center, from ZDNet report, "Inside the Large Hadron Collider: How IT powers the greatest experiment in history," 3/12/15

CERN Computer Center, from ZDNet report, "Inside the Large Hadron Collider: How IT powers the greatest experiment in history," 3/12/15

The new and improved Large Hadron Collider, located in CERN (a high-energy particle physics organization headquartered in Geneva), and credited for discovering the Higgs boson in 2012, is about to make history, once again, when it goes back online in a few weeks.   

The upgrade of the world's largest and most powerful particle collider promises to shed light on the mysterious Higgs boson. The ‘God Particle’ is known to help other particles acquire mass, but many of its properties are currently unknown to physicists.  

In an interview with ZDNet, Alberto Pace, the IT data and storage services group leader at CERN, says the challenges he faces there are "unmatched in many areas.”

The Grid processes more than two million jobs each day – the equivalent of a single computer running for roughly 1,300 years, according to CERN. The CERN tech team is using a combination of old and new technologies to meet the unprecedented storage and data demands of the Large Hadron Collider.

According to the ZDNet report, some of the technology that IT professionals use at CERN is so new it hasn't been released publicly. The organization tests many of their new products through a public-private partnership called CERN openlab. Such collaborations help CERN gain access to early technology years before it reaches the market, while companies get to see how their products work in a highly demanding environment. Frederic Hemmer, CERN IT department head told ZDNet that their partnership with Intel, for example, has exposed them to early CPU (central processing unit)technology.

Other partners in CERN openlab are Huawei, Oracle, and Siemens, while Rackspace and Seagate are contributors and Yandex is an associate. "The ongoing collaboration with Huawei is in the area of storage," says Hemmer. "We have been evaluating the latest solutions for cloud storage, and this is a good example of something that has become a product now available on the market."

In contrast, there's one old-school technology that CERN favors. It stores raw data from the experiments on magnetic tapes, a medium first used to record computer information in 1951, on a UNIVAC device. The IT team at CERN uses tapes rather than disks because they find it more reliable, more secure, and cheaper. They also explain that it writes data at a high rate and allows the team to verify data on the fly, synchronously, when the data is written. CERN demonstrates that tape, a 60-plus years old storage medium, is far from being obsolete, and can, in fact, be improved upon to meet high storage demands. ZDNet reports, “For the Large Hadron Collider run two, IT experts have improved the tape infrastructure to support cartridges with over 8TB of capacity each, a measure that will grant an increased archival capacity of the data center.”

So while most of the time it's the physicists that get all the credit for big breakthroughs at CERN, the tech team and its innovation provides the backbone for the Higgs boson experiment.

An example that supports the importance of the tech team in discovering solutions we use today is the invention of the World Wide Web. According to ZDNet, Sir Tim Berners-Lee came up with the idea of the World Wide Web in 1989 while working at CERN to facilitate communications within the organization: “He wrote a memo, passed it on to his supervisor, and after some time he was told he could do this project in his spare time. His supervisor wrote on that piece of paper ‘Vague, but exciting’.”