Evolution of Internet powers massive particle physics grid

Inside the network that will help scientists discover the origins of the Universe

If you're a fan of particle physics (and really, aren't we all?), by now you know scientists are on the verge of opening the Large Hadron Collider, which will use ultra-powerful magnets to race proton beams around a 17-mile circular underground tunnel and smash them into each other 40 million times a second.

Besides being awesome, these collisions will produce tiny particles not seen since just after the Big Bang and perhaps will enable scientists to find the elusive Higgs boson, which -- if theories are correct -- endows all objects with mass. The Large Hadron Collider may also help scientists figure out why all the matter in the universe wasn't destroyed by anti-matter, which would have been inconvenient for those of you who enjoy residing in a universe that isn't a great vacuum devoid of life.

Perhaps just as complicated as answering these questions of origin, however, is setting up a worldwide network capable of distributing the mountains of data produced by the seemingly infinite number of particle collisions. The Worldwide LHC Computing Grid was set up to perform this task. Data will be gathered from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which hosts the collider in France and Switzerland, and distributed to thousands of scientists throughout the world.

One writer described the grid as a "parallel Internet." Ruth Pordes, executive director of the Open Science Grid, which oversees the US infrastructure for the LHC network, describes it as an "evolution of the Internet." New fiber-optic cables with special protocols will be used to move data from CERN to 11 Tier-1 sites around the globe, which in turn use standard Internet technologies to transfer the data to more than 150 Tier-2 centers.

"It's using some advanced features and new technologies within the Internet to distribute the data," Pordes says. "It's advancing the technologies, it's advancing the [data transfer] rates, and it's advancing the usability and reliability of the infrastructure."

The data is first produced in the collisions which occur in caverns 100 meters underground. If all goes according to plan, the first proton beams will be injected into the LHC around mid-June, and will start smashing into each other about two months later.

When proton beams collide and produce new particles, data will be read from 150 million sensors and sent to a counting room where signals are filtered. The interesting data, or "raw data," is what remains, according to CERN.

(Read CERN's description of how the grid network operates here.)

Raw data is sent over dedicated 10Gbips optical fiber connections to the CERN Computer Centre, which is known as "Tier-0" in the LHC Computing Grid. Here, raw data is sent to tape storage and also to a CPU farm which processes information and generates "event summary data." Subsets of both the raw data and summaries are sent to the 11 Tier-1 sites, including Brookhaven National Laboratory and Fermilab.

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