Macs helping LHC destroy the world (or discover it)

David Braue
12 September, 2008
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Whether or not it engulfs the world in an all-consuming black hole when experiments begin in earnest next month, the organisers of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) super-experiment can be credited with taking the technological high road by using an application virtualisation solution to put Mac-using LHC scientists on the same footing as their Windows-using peers.

Anticipating the use of its data by thousands of scientists the world over, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) set about creating a standard desktop that those scientists could use to interact with the phenomenally sized databases that will soon be filled with terabytes of data from the LHC’s experiments in particle collision.

Recognising that scientists have often deeply entrenched preferences as to which computer they like to use, CERN took the middle ground and instead built a standard operating environment on top of a lean Linux kernel (CERN hasn’t said which one).

Using the rBuilder virtual appliance maker from rPath, CERN was able to package a suite of key applications, along with a core operating system that was preconfigured with access to specific LHC-related resources, and deliver that package to users around the world as a standalone virtual machine (VM).

A VM is simply a file that contains all operating system, application and user data. When loaded into a “hypervisor” application like VMware Fusion, the CERN VM runs directly on top of the Mac OS X desktop, interacting with Internet connections and other resources both on their local machines and on the remote LHC systems. Windows users get the same functionality using the free VMware Player tool.

“CERN had a very heterogeneous environment and a very distributed team,” Reza Malekzadeh, senior director of products and marketing told AMW.

“In the scientific world people tend to have their own preferences as to what they run, so CERN needed a solution that would allow them to run the same environment regardless of the underlying hardware. They have some very big things at stake, and we were able to put in place a very streamlined operating system that met their requirements without things that would not be useful for them.”

Virtualisation is fast gaining currency as a way of overcoming the artificial barriers between operating systems – proving particularly useful for Mac users, who no longer have to wait until Mac versions of key applications are released. This has fueled a growth in the delivery of applications as ‘virtual appliances’ – preconfigured VMs available for download from VMware and many other sources.

Compatibility is only one benefit of CERN’s virtualisation approach, however: by preconfiguring the CERN VM as a known quantity, the organisation will reduce its overall support burden since it doesn’t have to help scientists work through the vagaries of their own computing environments.

Powered up for the first time this week, the Large Hadron Collider is a ring, 27km in circumference, that straddles the France-Switzerland border.

By colliding two protons traversing the ring in opposite directions at 99.999999% of the speed of light, it is hoped the LHC will shed light on previously nebulous scientific theories that relate to the creation of the universe. Doomsayers worry that the collision will create a black hole that will swallow the earth, but scientific consensus is that the experiment will be safe.

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