updated 01:25 pm EDT, Mon June 19, 2006
Physicists turn to Macs
Scientists at the CERN international particle physics laboratory in Geneva have turned to Apple technology in a major global project to help improve humankind's understanding of the structure of the universe. Intel Macs will be used to measure what happens when particles collide at near the speed of light. The ALICE experiment (A Large Ion Collider Experiment) is one of five engineered to create collisions produced by CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's largest particle accelerator that will collide beams of protons with 14 TeV of energy. The five experiments will handle nearly 10 petabytes of data per year, or as much data as the entire European telecommunications network handles today.
The ALICE computing group implemented a mini cluster consisting of eight nodes of Apple Xserve and Xserve Raid dual processors, porting both the software environment and the grid software. Since Apple's introduction of its Intel Macs, the group has doubled the size of its cluster.
"We have nearly 1600 Mac users at CERN. Since we took delivery of a number of laptops with Intel chips the performance improvements have been phenomenal," said Fons Rademakers, ALICE offline computing software architect. "On the older Macs, compiling code took one and a half hours. With the new ones we are down to 10 minutes. So Apple is now an extremely effective development environment and we know it is likely to be very cost effective."
CERN also finds Macs useful for multimedia presentations and conferencing capability, which are requirements for all ALICE team scientists.
"We use multimedia a great deal," said Federico Carminati, ALICE computing coordinator. "It is not the first parameter of platform choice, but it's great that you have that on the Mac, as well as the UNIX environment. Given the choice between a Mac and a system with comparable performance, our people will choose the Mac because of the added multimedia value."
Assessing the results
Once a 'farm' of Intel-based Macs has been installed at CERN, other computer centers will likely send representatives to assess the results.
"We know that a number of centers would like to run Macs," said Rademakers, "but if we weren't running our infrastructure on the platform, they could never make the move. Now they can."