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At CERN, computers to tackle the Big Bang

Fahmi Rizwansyah says:

GENEVA--The CERN Computer Center is the number-crunching hub that powers the physics research lab's quest to discover the nature of the universe.

A formidable 8,000 servers housing 40,000 Intel processor cores provide the grunt to help crack the petabytes of data spewed out from CERN's cutting-edge particle accelerators, based here. Editors' note: This story was originally published on as a photo gallery. Click here to see all the images.)

About half of these cores will be used to deal with data from the 17-mile-long Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which will generate about 15 petabytes of data by colliding protons with protons.

The computer center will provide only about 20 percent of the processing power used to examine the LHC data, with the rest coming from the LHC Computing Grid, a dedicated network of more than 100,000 processors.

Scientists hope the LHC will offer a "glimpse" at the Higgs Boson, a particle thought to give mass to the universe.

The LHC will produce up to 600 million particle collisions per second. To store the huge amount of data the LHC produces, the center houses 8 petabytes of hard disks and 18 petabytes of magnetic tapes. This will increase to 16 petabytes of disc and 30 petabytes of tape by the end of the year.

Even this is insufficient to store the vast amounts of the raw data produced by the LHC, so its four detectors--which each look for different particles and energy signatures--have built-in electronics and smaller computer centers that analyze petabytes of data per second they collect and that throw away the bulk of the information not of interest to the physicists.

The data that's left is sent on to the computer center and its racks of servers.

"A lot of processors are devoted to data processing for physics. We are collecting a tremendous amount of data from the collision points," said Jean Michel Jouanigot, head of network services at CERN.

CERN switching points.

The computing center holds 1,500 10-gigabit ports for data exchange and 70,000 1-gigabit ports for information flow among CERN sites. These are just some of the switching points.
(Credit: CERN)
Once the data arrives at the center it is immediately stored and reprocessed before being made available to 7,000 physicists in 33 countries via the LHC grid.

The grid is linked to the center through dedicated 10-gigabit-per-second connections. It can handle about 50,000 users at once, sharing out bandwidth and processing power between scientists.

"The grid is a worldwide collaboration through many hundreds of sites and will get information through very powerful networks," Jouanigot said.

CERN serves as an Internet exchange point and is one of the oldest in Europe.

Within the computing center itself, the data exchange is handled by 1,500 10-gigabit ports, while information flow within CERN's various sites is handled by 70,000 1-gigabit ports.

by Nick Heath of reported from London.

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