Sunday, 21 August 2011

LHC@home 2.0 - towards a virtual atom smasher

The Citizen Cyberscience Centre was in the news just about everywhere last week, thanks to a CERN press release that mentioned the testing of the new LHC@home 2.0 volunteer computing project. The CCC has played a crucial role in developing this project, thanks to support from the Shuttleworth Foundation.

We are flabbergasted! The interest has exceeded the wildest dreams of all of us at the CCC and our CERN colleagues. And thanks to the press coverage and avid retweeting of the news, the response in terms of number of people trying to register to this new project has been phenomenal.

A week ago, we reached 8000 registered users which pushed the number of computers simultaneously connected to our server well over 1000. To give a sense of scale, with just 100 simultaneous connections we had already reached the equivalent of all the computing power at CERN that the physicists who developed this project have access to. So getting more than 10x that in just a few days boggled our minds - and also bogged down our servers! We're going to open gradually to more participants in the near future. We'll then stabilize for a while before further increases.

This was announced as a beta-test to explore the limitations of our system, and we certainly succeeded in doing that, thanks to the support of the volunteer community. Particular thanks to all the experienced BOINC users in the forums who have been patiently explaining to newcomers that this sort of thing is normal in a beta-test. And hats off to our technical crew (which is basically just Artem and Anton in Geneva and Daniel in Madrid) who have been working literally around the clock to get the system running smoothly again.

Just what does this mean for LHC physics? To put that in colourful perspective, here's a quote from a great article by Jacqui Hayes, editor of International Science Grid this Week, interviewing amongst other Peter Skands, the lead physicist on the project:

“We would never be able to simulate as many events as the LHC,” Skands said. “The fastest Monte Carlo I have would produce one collision per millisecond, on average. But the LHC produces 40 million per second.”

At this point of our interview, Skands paused and leant back in his chair. “How many volunteers would we need to produce as many events as the LHC?” He shrugged as he said it, and he meant it merely as a rhetorical question, a nod to the incomprehensible size and speed of the LHC. But, as he started to answer his own question, it suddenly dawned on him that he could actually produce a fully-fledged virtual atom smasher if just 40,000 volunteers ran his Monte Carlo simulations at the same time.

Until that point, Skands had been hoping for perhaps 10,000 volunteers on his project.“I never even considered that a possibility before now,” said Skands. “Honest to God, that would be a fun thing to do!”

Fun, indeed! Who knows, maybe by the time you read this blog post, the virtual atom smasher will have caught up with the data rate of it's real world cousin.