CIO of CERN on black holes, budget crunches

q&a As head of IT, Wolfgang von Rueden plays a key role in the nuclear research lab's quest to unravel the nature of the universe through the Large Hadron Collider.

Few CIOs could claim to have helped recreate the Big Bang at work.

But as head of IT at CERN, Wolfgang von Rueden plays a key role in the nuclear research lab's quest to unravel the nature of the universe by colliding particles at 99 percent the speed of light.

Von Rueden and his team provide the computing backbone that supports the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator's hunt for the elusive Higgs Boson--dubbed the "God particle"--invisible dark matter, and even evidence of extra dimensions.

Wolfgang von Rueden
Wolfgang von Rueden CERN

Having joined the lab in Geneva in 1975, von Rueden has enjoyed a varied career, working on data acquisition and processing systems for the particle accelerators that preceded the LHC, before becoming head of the IT department at the beginning of 2003.

The department looks after the base infrastructure at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) and runs its main computing center that will process petabytes of data from the LHC and helps coordinate and develop the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid, a global network of 100,000 processors that will make sense of the reams of data the LHC produces.

Silicon.com recently spoke with von Rueden about his day-to-day duties, the current economic woes, and the biggest misconceptions about CERN.

Q: What are your responsibilities at CERN?
Von Rueden: The control system used for the accelerators are run by the accelerator departments but we provide base infrastructure to everybody, including email, databases, networking, desktop support, Web services, and more.

What is the best thing about your job?
Von Rueden: I like developing new ideas and trying to make the almost impossible possible.

I have been here now for 34 years, and I have not ever had a dull day.

I've always enjoyed it and love to come into CERN. It's fun even when it's long working hours and tiring. We do it because we like what we do.

We have many people on short-term contracts, and it's very hard sometimes when people don't want to leave. We don't have problems finding people to work here.

What difficulties lie ahead for CERN's computing backbone?
Von Rueden: The problem is getting enough electrical power, as the computers need more and more electricity. We will run out of steam in about two years time in the current CERN Computer Center and are planning a new data center to keep up with the demand.

That is the same problem at all of our grid centers around the world. They all have got to look at how they can cut power usage by looking at new technologies, green IT, and so on. It's doable. It's just a case of funding.

How much power we will need depends on how much data is coming out of the LHC. 2009 is going to be a very interesting year.

Do you think it will be possible to fund the Large Hadron Collider experiment in the current financial climate?
Von Rueden: I believe that it's wrong when you have a short fluctuation in the economy to slow down in investing in technology.

I think you have to do the opposite. When times are bad, you have to invest in fundamental science and education and pushing forward because that is going to get you the results you need to make things better and cheaper.

How will CERN and the LHC Worldwide Computing Grid benefit wider society?

Images: Where particles, physics theories collide
Click image for gallery on the Large Hadron Collider. Maximilien Brice for CERN

Von Rueden: As well as the work we do with business on CERN Openlab, there are a large number of different applications that (the grid is) being used for already today.

Of the different computing centers in the grid, several of them support multiple sciences such as biomedical applications, earth sciences, and astrophysics. They are not just supporting particle physics.

It's more a case of the communities using grid computing as they have a need for it. As particle accelerators got more and more complicated, our community was forced to work together on the same project rather than build separate accelerators.

What's the most ridiculous thing you've heard about CERN?
There was this hype about the grid replacing the entire Internet. It was nonsense; it was just not true. We use standard products. We are not revolutionizing technology. This was completely untrue.

Take the stories about black holes--also, rubbish. Take the stories about the hacking incident--what was reported was complete nonsense.

I am not that happy about the way that some journalists pick up something that is utter nonsense and you can guarantee a few hours later that it will be copied by other journalists.

I have just stopped reading the reports altogether.

 

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