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Fermilab connects to worldwide computing grid

by Alexander Reed
Oct 02, 2008

An international computing grid will soon connect the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia to the new atom-smasher in Switzerland as scientists step up their search for the fundamental building blocks of the universe.

The CERN particle accelerator near Geneva and Fermilab can share data on the search for elusive particles such the Higgs boson, a particle theorized to give mass to matter. The Large Hadron Collider eclipsed the Fermilab accelerator as the largest one in the world when it became operational last month.

The collider will produce an estimated 15 milllion gigabytes of data annually, "enough information to create a 13-mile-high stack of CDs," according to Ian Bird, project manager for the worldwide computing grid.

Programmers say the new computing system is specifically designed to meet the monumental data requirements of the planned experiments with CERN’s particle accelerator. The collider accelerates beams of protons to near light speed and slams them into each other, allowing scientists to study the fundamental properties of matter in the debris.

"The main goal of the grid is to make new scientific discoveries," said Eileen Berman, head of the Grid Department at Fermilab’s Computing Division. "There is a lot of anticipation and excitement" about the new worldwide grid system becoming operational. The grid will combine the computing capacity of more than 140 institutions in 33 countries.

As science makes ever-increasing demands for the sharing of research, computing grids have proven an effective way to cut costs and simplify data transmission.

"If you have an institution with multiple computer clusters, many global locations, and you want to use them in a uniform way, then you’re talking grid," said Frank Wuerthwein, a physicist at the University of California San Diego, who uses a computing grid in an ongoing CERN experiment.

Although researchers at Fermilab and CERN will celebrate the completion of the grid with simultaneous "Grid Fests" on Oct. 3, they will have to wait until spring 2009 to see how the new computing system will handle a full-power activation of CERN's particle accelerator. CERN technicians are currently working to repair a helium leak that prevents the machine from fully activating.