Getting Back on the Grid

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about what I’m actually doing job-wise at the moment. My “about me” page/Twitter bio states that I’m the “STFC Researcher in Residence for the CERN@school project”, but I think it’s fair to say that the focus of the first six months of this post has been about working out exactly what that actually means. Now it’s February 2013, and I think I’m in a position to explain it. In a nutshell, I’ve been establishing the boundaries of what’s possible with a school-based, student-led research group, and working out how to roll out the model to other schools. But that can wait for another post (and, indeed, my six month report to STFC); for now I’m going to write about what I did yesterday.

Back on the Grid - The Queen Mary High Throughput Cluster, part of the London Tier-2 GridPP site.

This is where my “Hello World!” job ran. What this picture can’t convey is the heat (even with the air conditioning) and the noise (hence the ear defenders).

Yesterday was (for me, at least) a “QMUL Day” – a day where I venture into London from Canterbury to work at Queen Mary, University of London. As part of the arrangement with STFC, I’m a visiting academic at the School of Physics and Astronomy’s Particle Physics Research Centre (PPRC). The PPRC support the project by giving CERN@school access to the GridPP – an immense network of computing power that forms the UK’s contribution (via STFC) to the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid (WLCG) that processes the petabytes of data produced by particle physics experiments around the world. The LHC experiments use it to analyse data and run simulations to compare with that data. Indeed, when I was working on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment for my PhD, I used it to look for evidence of supersymmetry in the 7TeV proton-proton collisions. We didn’t find it then (and haven’t found it yet), but that almost certainly wasn’t the fault of the GridPP or the WLCG.

Yesterday was bit of a special day for me in my CERN@school role: I ran my first Grid “job” as a member of the CERN@school “Virtual Organisation”. A “job” is a computer program that you can get the GridPP’s network of computers to run for you. A “Virtual Organisation” is the GridPP club that you join to keep track of who’s running which jobs; CMS have one (that I was once a member of), ATLAS have one, and CERN@school has one too. The job wasn’t particularly exciting: it ran a tiny bit of code that printed “Hello World!” to file that could then be retrieved from the GridPP (in this case, the QMUL cluster, but this particular job could have run at Glasgow or Birmingham) to my laptop.

Back on the Grid - the Back of the Racks.

The back of the cluster’s racks. It all gets a bit Skyfall here… thankfully, there were no blond-haired supervillains in sight.

While this was unlikely to trouble the 1.8 Petabyte storage capacity of QMUL’s High Throughput Cluster – which I also got to see for the first time yesterday – it was very much the first step towards getting students plugged into the GridPP and harnessing its potential for their own research. For example, with the right software in place – and a well-designed user interface – complex, computationally-intensive simulations of how the Timepix detectors that make up the Langton Ultimate Cosmic ray Intensity Detector (LUCID) will respond to various types of space weather could be run, monitored and analysed by students without the need to impose on school IT support teams.

Implementing this is just one of the things I’ve got to do. For now, I’m rather happy in the knowledge that my shiny new Grid Certificate worked and my first job relayed the timeless “Hello World!” message to me. I’m back on the Grid – and now the real work begins!

You can find further information about the GridPP from QMUL’s GridCafe website.

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