High-Energy Linux: Linux & the Large Hadron Collider

December 07, 2009 2:26 PM EST
The biggest, most powerful atom smasher the world has ever seen, the LHC (Large Hadron Collider), with its 17-mile underground loop and TeVs (Teraelectronvolts) of proton beams, is finally up and running, with Linux in control.

After some LHC engineering problems were fixed, CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research)'s LHC is now back to work exploring if the standard theories of both how matter and energy holds up and how the universe was created. The LHC will do this by smashing together a pair of particle beams that are shot around the circle in opposite directions at just shy of the speed of light. The resulting collision will produce showers of new particles, including, scientists hope, the elusive Higgs Boson particle.

If you were going to blast together TeVs of protons — an act that might create micro-black holes which, if you were to get in the way of them, would be "the equivalent of having 87kg (kilograms) of TNT dumped into your body," as one CERN scientist put it — which operating system would you want running the show? I'll give you three guesses.

That's right. The LHC runs on Linux. To be exact, its uses a modified version of Scientific Linux, which in turn is based on RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux).

This distribution's name says it all. Scientific Linux is meant for use by large research labs such as CERN and the U.S.'s equivalent high-energy physics group, Fermilab. Its main goal is to allow scientists to easily customize it by using scripts and Red Hat/Fedora's Anaconda installer. This lets every lab create its own custom distributions with minimal effort while retaining compatibility with the base distribution.

With the LHC, CERN will be using it to manage both the systems themselves and to make sense of the 15 petabytes -- that's 15 million gigabytes -- of data the LHC is expected to generate every year. Fortunately, Linux is great at super-computing.

CERN is also using Scientific Linux to run its LCG (LHC Computing Grid). The LHC isn't the fastest computer in the world, but it may set the record for being the biggest computer the world has ever seen, since it's made up of more than 100,000 processors from over 170 sites in 34 countries. There are bigger distributed grid computing efforts, such as the search for extra-terrestrial life SETI@home project and the protein analysis Folding@home project, but the Linux-powered LCG is probably the largest dedicated distributed grid computing project.

As a reader pointed out, you can join in on the science as well, but not the LCG, by using the open-source BOINC grid-computing software, for Linux, Mac OS X and Windows. You can join the LHC@home project by clicking the link.

I don't know about you, but I'm really pleased to see Linux and open-source software working hand-in-glove with perhaps the most important science project of the 21st century to date. When it comes to the really hard jobs, whether it's supercomputing, managing stock market trades in real time, or gigantic experimental projects, Linux is the way to go.