The Large Hadron Collider switches on. If it's the end of the world, it will be powered by GNU/Linux

You know a science story is big when an experiment gets first or second billing on the main evening news--and it's not even a slow news day. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is up and running as I write and as far as I can tell I'm still here, so it looks like the doomsayers were a little premature. Unless I'm writing this piece from the far side of the singularity of a black hole in a parallel universe.

The LHC is an huge experiment (a snip at $10 billion) to explore the very small and very energetic sub-atomic world to verify, amongst other things, if the Higgs Boson really exists. That will be a monumental triumph for science and the human spirit. I have always been fascinated by particle physics, despite by academic background in the Humanities and I will be following the progress at CERN with great interest. I am particularly pleased too because free software will be at the heart of this colossal human endeavour. GNU/Linux has been, is and will continue to power CERN's efforts. This is a wonderful opportunity to tell the world that Windows doesn't rule the roost.

CERN and free software

CERN played a pivotal part in the evolution of the internet we know and love today. Where would we be today without the hypertext link? The link is the web. It fuels the network of global computing and, as Cisco say, "the network is the computer". To be more precise, a certain Tim Berners-Lee invented the hypertext link when he was working at CERN as an independent contractor in the 1980s. He saw the opportunity to link his hypertext to the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Domain Name System (DNS) The rest, as they say, is history.

Who speaks of Gopher now? It has all but withered on the vine

Berners-Lee designed the first web browser, built the fist server and the first website was launched at CERN in August 1991. To do any of these things represents a significant achievement but he did something just as important; perhaps more important. He gave the nascent world wide web to the world as a gift. For free. Unlike Bill Gates he did not develop his ideas as closed, proprietary software. He didn't go down the copyright or intellectual property route. (Like the University of Minnesota which put a licencing fee on Gopher Had he done so he might be dispensing charitable largesse on a grand scale like Gates. Yet, Berners-Lee's contribution is arguably greater for it has transformed the world in a way that Microsoft thinks it has--but hasn't. When Time Magazine published its list of the 20th century's one hundred most important people Berners-Lee was included and described as someone who fought to keep the web "open, non-proprietary and free". One shudders to think where we would be today if Microsoft had got there first and controlled the web. We have had innumerable and well-documented instances of how it operates--even as recently as using its clout and muscle to get OOXML adopted as an ISO standard.

Berners-Lee's spirit was no mere accident. CERN is home to not only a spirit of free enquiry, but to the use of free software itself. For starters CERN's 20,000 servers use GNU/Linux. In fact they developed their own version of Scientific Linux (SL), a recompiled version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, in conjunction with Fermilab and other labs across the world. The naming convention is rather unusual: customised versions are called "sites" and when a site is created the name is simply added to "Scientific Linux". Thus, a customisation is called Scientific Linux CERN 3 (SLC3). If you want to take the latest "site" for a spin live CDs are available.

If that doesn't convince you of CERN's free software credentials, perhaps their version of VMware Fusion called cernVM will. It is a customised version of GNU/Linux running in a VMware virtual machine on PCs and Macs through which users can access the computing grid.

The network is the computer

In the coming months the LHC will output data on a truly massive scale that threatens to simply overwhelm the bandwidth of the current web: it is reported that the experiment will produce one gigabyte of data every second and that deluge requires a whole new way of handling data and distributing petabytes of information. To solve that problem CERN came up with the Grid. This is being seen widely as the future of the web. Two large bottlenecks have been identified: the shortage of IP addresses and bandwidth. The former is being solved with the introduction of IPv6 which should render addresses virtually inexhaustible. As the number of users and web-enabled devices grows however and the web churns out more and more data, the other choke point therefore becomes bandwidth. CERN's solution is The Grid.

The primary architecture of the computing grid is the "tier" and there are three of them (perhaps notated by someone who knows about Grub?): 0, 1 and 2. The first centres on CERN itself, the second covers various sites across Asia, Europe and North America and the third is represented by individual labs, universities and private companies. Tier 0 will be capable of managing up to 10 gigabytes per second across fibre optic cables. If you want to see an excellent video featuring CERN's Atlas detector (effectively a giant six story high, 100 megapixel 3D digital camera powered by open source java applications) on the LHC which explains this network architecture, point your browser to this ZDNet video. Your presenter is no less than Derek Mathieson, CERN's project director.

CERN's choice of GNU/Linux is no one off. To manage this vast data output from the LHC some controlling software was required to manage the petabytes of data for users sitting at their computers across the world on the computing grid. Users need to access the data transparently even though it is sitting on geographically disparate servers housing those petabytes. CERN's solution was Globus, open-source middleware that interfaces between software applications and different operating systems too. Globus was released initially under a BSD-style licence after careful consideration. It was considered less viral than the GPL. Globus later migrated to the Apache 2.0 licence. I have the distinct feeling Eben Moglen would have preferred the GPL and he discussed it in an interview with The Globus Consortium Journal.

Free software and open access

The terms of the Berlin Declaration would warm the cockles of Richard Stallman's heart

CERN is nothing if not consistent and comprehensive. In addition to all its explicit support for free software standards and protocols it actively supports and promotes open archiving repositories too. Under its institutional self-archiving mandate CERN's institutional repository (IR) is housing and giving open access to all its published research article output (as well as all past output too). Software, as you might expect, is released under the GPL. The commitment to open standards has been enshrined in the CERN Convention since 1953. and CERN is a signatory to the Berlin Declaration which commits them to the principles of open access to knowledge in science and the humanities. Its terms would warm the cockles of Richard Stallman's heart. It is no coincidence that in June 2007 Stallman visited CERN and gave a speech there about the politic and ethics of free software. Mark Shuttleworth of Ubuntu gave a a lecture there too in 2007. There was not a spare seat to be had, as reported by the CERN Computer Newsletter. CERN has seriously good form here.

Anyone who has read Eric Raymond's "The Cathedral and the Baazar" will recognize immediately the free and open software paradigm by which, the more knowledge is freely available, the more participation and innovation occurs and at an accelerated pace too. Knowledge needs and wants to be free and CERN absolutely recognizes this. If you wish to give concrete expression to these ideas you can always sign the online petition for guaranteed public access to publicly-funded research results. In a similar vein, if you live in the UK you might be aware of the campaign run The Guardian newspaper about the scandalous behaviour of government departments charging for information which has already been produced by civil servants funded from the public purse (primarily the Ordnance Survey, Highways Agency and the Hydrographic Office). The paper spawned the "Free our data campaign" which in turned led to a dedicated website.

Apart from the obvious injustice of compelling taxpayers to pay for the same information twice, The Guardian made the entirely sensible observation that this kind of behaviour stifles competition and innovation and cited the case of how Google Earth would have fared under this anachronistic regime. We should not of course be at all surprised by this state of affair in the UK where the same vested interests are controlled by the same clique of humanities graduate mandarins who infest Whitehall with degrees in PPE from Oxbridge and wear their ignorance of and hostility towards science and technology like a badge of pride. The self-same individuals were responsible for the death of the British space industry in the 1950s and 1960s, declaring it to be of no economic use when in fact it was brilliantly innovative and in many respects ahead of the Americans. Anyone who saw the Channel Four documentary on this a few years ago could only be utterly shocked by it. I was incandescent with rage, disgust and disbelief. C.P. Snow's "two cultures" is still alive and well.


It's hard to fault CERN. They seem to got it all right. How Microsoft must hate them

CERN and the LHC are a breath of fresh air. Here is a massive, high profile project that has just had the kind of publicity most scientists would die for--no pun intended--and the principles of free software and open access to publicly funded science are at the heart of it all. It's hard to fault CERN. They seem to got it all right.

It is almost unbelievable that scientists at CERN were subject to death threats if they switched on the LHC. (Didn't the protesters spot the (black) hole in their logic?) Such was the level of scientific ignorance that people believed it would create a black hole which would destroy us. The only danger would have been if the whole epic enterprise had been powered by Microsoft Windows. Then, the only black hole that would have popped into existence would have been the one they have been reproducing for years since Windows 95. The Blue Screen of Death.


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