Frédéric Hemmer: Serving a world-wide community

CERN’s IT Department provides a variety of services to the Organization, its users and hundreds of institutes around the world. It plays a vital role in the operation of the LHC and its experiments. This week we meet the new IT Department Head, who tells us about the challenges his teams will face over the coming years.

In this period leading up to the first data being produced at the LHC and processed via the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid (WLCG), the IT Department is focussing on service for users and the new Computing Centre which should be built on the Prévessin site. As Frédéric Hemmer, the new IT Department Head, explains, "we are here to serve CERN, its associated institutes and its industrial partners. The Grid is the best illustration of this, but we do have other informatics products that we share with a large number of users across the world, such as INDICO (conference management system) and INVENIO (archiving system used by CDS)."

The Department’s top priority is clearly to prepare itself to manage the huge volumes of data from the LHC in the optimum way. The data transmission and distribution chain has been tested many times but the real end-user test will only come with the commissioning of the machine and the production of data by the experiments. "Since 2004 we may have been able to test the data transfer from the experiments to the computing centre, the archiving of part of this data and distribution to the WLCG Tier-1 centres, but there’s one thing we haven’t been able to test in advance and that’s what the world’s physicists will actually do with the LHC data once they have it to analyse. In the jargon we call this ‘chaotic analysis’, and it’s a big challenge for us," Hemmer explains.

To meet the storage and computing capacity requirements of the coming years, the Department has included the construction of a new computing centre in its medium-term planning. The final site has yet to be decided, but it is likely to be on the Prévessin site, on a plot opposite the Combined Control Centre (CCC). The future computing centre will be built in compliance with "Green IT" environmental criteria. For instance, some of the heat given off by the computers could be recovered to heat part of the Prévessin site. Frédéric Hemmer adds "this plot is one of the only sites that is large enough and has adequate access to the power grid. Once the project has been approved it will take 18 to 24 months to complete construction. But according to estimates, the electrical and cooling capacity of the present computing centre will run out towards the end of 2011 and it will no longer be able to house the equipment needed to meet the increasing computing requirements. That is why the IT Department is investigating transitional measures, in particular sharing the computing space of other institutes. This is yet another challenge we have to overcome because at the moment we don’t really know how to manage such a system."

The strong growth of web and e-mail services provided by the Department places computer security at the centre of Hemmer’s preoccupations. For example, last year an external website registered under a URL fell victim to hackers and displayed content that was detrimental to the Laboratory’s good name. Computer security has become a major issue for the IT Department. "We believe that, due to the potential damage to the Organization and its reputation of a simple click on a web link, a complete culture change has to take place, from the IT specialist right through to the end-user. When we design an application or web software, we have to think about computer safety right from the outset. The IT Department gives out information to users on this topic and can also be called upon to provide training. We also keep a close eye on things via the networks, protect ourselves using firewalls and offer the technical know-how to explain the ‘dos and the don’ts’." Prevention, detection, education – these are the IT Department’s security strategy watchwords.

Seen from the outside, the ability for someone to take control of accelerator or experiment components by digital means would obviously be the worst-case scenario. But Frédéric Hemmer assures us that such a scenario is out of the question, citing the "total independence of the technical network from the public network."

The new management team has not greatly modified the internal structure of the Department, but some improvements have been made. "New industrial practices have emerged over recent years, such as the Information Technology Information Library (ITIL)," Hemmer explains. "The aim is to improve the management of IT services. For general services like e-mail and databases, we want to align ourselves to these practices, which basically apply to incident management, change management and communication with users so that they are aware of the added value of our work."

50,000 network connections, 8,000 websites, 15,000 e-mail accounts, 6,000 Windows machines - the figures are enough to make your head spin! But the CERN IT Department prides itself on its effectiveness in managing standard operations with a very low level of resources. According to Frédéric Hemmer, the key to this success probably lies in process automation. "But none of it would be possible without the skill and creativity of our staff."

Frédéric Hemmer’s CV in brief

Frédéric Hemmer studied Electrical and Mechanical Engineering and Computing in Brussels. He joined CERN in 1984 to work as a systems engineer in databases, real-time systems and more generally distributed computing. He was the initial author of the RFIO remote file access protocol, still in use today. From 1994, he took responsibility for operating the Physics Data Processing Services that deal with hundreds of machines, Terabytes-worth of data, and Gigabit/second interconnections. In 1998, he took responsibility for the Windows service (more than 5000 computers) and later the e-mail and Web Services. In 2004, he joined the EGEE (Enabling Grids for E-sciencE) project and in 2005 he was appointed Deputy Department Head before being appointed Department Head for the period 2009-2013.