Monday, June 2, 2008

Les Robertson kicks off with a keynote

A nice keynote from Les Robertson, who’s been heading up the LCG project, an effort to pull together a grid of 100,000 computers from institutions around the world in time for the start-up of the Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator that will create around 15 petabytes of data every year. [Shameless self promotion: check out this terrific interview with Les by me in iSGTW, complete with picture of Les from 1974 ;-)]

New to the LHC?

The LHC (Large Hadron Collider) is a 27-km ring of superconducting magnets that will generate temperatures a billion times hotter than the heat of the sun by smashing together particles traveling at 99.999999991% the speed of light (nice!). It’ll do this around 40 million times every second, which is more often than my Internet dropped out during this session. And it will operate at 1.9 Kelvin, which is minus-a-lot when converted to Celsius, and colder than temperatures in outer space. The LHC cost about 3 billion Euros and is designed to help us answer some big questions about our Universe.

The LHC Computing Grid (LCG)

Known to many as the lab “where the web was born,” CERN is now leading the LCG project, an effort to make the data generated by the LHC available to physicists around the world, in almost real time. Just one of the LHC experiments involves 2000 physicists from 34 countries and 150 universities.

Why choose grid for the LHC data?

1) each of the gazillions of particle collisions that will happen inside the LHC are independent events, which means you can analyze each event on an independent computer. This is a big “thumbs up” for grid computing.

2) the codes required to analyze the events are pretty small in terms of the memory they take up (around 2 gigabytes), which means you can use ordinary PCs to do the analysis. Another big “thumbs up”.

Plus, the nature of a computing grid is that it is distributed: scientists across the planet can access this data from the convenience of their own office, in their own lab.

How's the LHG progressing?

In Les’s own words: “So far, so good.” The LHG currently involves more than 140 computer centres around the world, including 60 federations in 35 countries. It averages around 300,000 jobs a day, which is the same as running 35,000 Intel cores 24 hours a day, seven days a week. (YAY for automation!).

And how important is this computer grid to the success of the LHC?

Essential. The distributed system must work from Day 1 of the LHC beginning collisions.

Does it work?

Les’s words again: “We’ll see when the physics comes out. We’re in the process of doing some final testing.” It’s all looking good at this stage: All of the baseline functionality is deployed and in use, so the focus of testing is now on performance and operational issues, like data distribution and access and storage management.

But, Robertson stressed that there are no guarantees. “The LCG is research. Until the real data comes we don’t actually know what people are going to do. We’re certainly looking forward to very exciting times.”

Yee ha! I quite like exciting times.

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