Grid will help physicists' global hunt for particles

Computer scientists in Chicago and Indianapolis will sift through data from the CERN particle accelerator in 2007 as part of a worldwide grid network.

When physicists at Switzerland's CERN laboratory turn on their newest particle collider in 2007, they will rely on computer scientists in Chicago and Indianapolis to help sift through the results using a worldwide supercomputing grid.

That grid is now ready for use, according to a statement Friday by scientists at the University of Chicago and Indiana University. The researchers have begun running experiments with the MidWest Tier 2 Center, one of five regional computing centers in the U.S. that will support the network.

The entire grid computing network combines storage and processing resources at 158 institutions in 35 nations. Together, the scientists hope to find evidence of the Higgs boson, the theoretical source of mass in all matter. They could also discover supersymmetric particles, which act as gateways to extra dimensions.

Their challenge is to find evidence of the tiny particles in mountains of raw data. CERN researchers will monitor their new Large Hadron Collider with four particle-detectors known collectively as ATLAS (a toroidal large hadron collider apparatus). By steering beams of protons around the 27-kilometer circumference underground ring, the scientists will create 40 million particle collisions per second. Each collision creates 23 interactions between protons, one of which may provide evidence of the theoretical boson.

"If we don't see it, there's going to be a great deal of consternation," said James Pilcher, a physics professor at the University of Chicago. But those eager researchers will have to be patient as their computers crunch the data.

"Even once the data is recorded, it will take years of careful sifting and sorting, which will require massive amounts of computing power to extract the final scientific results," said Frederick Luehring, a senior research scientist at Indiana University.

That's where Luehring and Pilcher come in. They have linked their computer servers, data storage and networking equipment to a national infrastructure called the Open Science Grid, a consortium formed in 2004 with funding from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.

The torrents of data from each ATLAS experiment will flow first to CERN's main computing hub, Tier 0, and then to 11 Tier 1 centers scattered around the world. One of those centers is New York state's Brookhaven National Lab, which will portion the data out to the country's four Tier 2 centers, including the Chicago/Indiana facility.

Even the MidWest Tier 2 Center is split into several locations, with servers scattered through buildings in Chicago and Indianapolis. Both sites run clusters of 16 servers, each machine running two dual-core Opteron chips from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and storing data on 2.5T bytes of serial ATA disks, according to Steve Koppes, a spokesman for the University of Chicago. The sites plan to add greater capability in January, bringing more processors on line and supporting a faster wide-area network connection.

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