Helix Nebula: sunshine and clouds on the CERN computing horizon

23 petabytes is how much data CERN recorded during 2011, and this number will rise in 2012. In order to respond to the challenge, the IT department is upping its game, amongst other things by participating in the Helix Nebula project, a public-private partnership to create a European cloud-computing platform, as announced in a recent CERN press release.


“We’re not replacing the Grid,” clarifies Bob Jones, responsible for CERN openlab who is also responsible for EC-funded projects in IT, “but looking at three complementary ways of increasing CERN’s computing capacity, so that as demand goes up we can continue to satisfy our users.”

“First we are upgrading the electrical and cooling infrastructure of the computer centre in order to increase the availability of critical IT services needed for the Laboratory. This will also provide more floor space in the area called The Barn, allowing for more servers to fit in.”

“The second,” he continues, “involves hosting CERN servers in a remote data centre in another Member State, probably as soon as 2013. There’s been an official tendering process, the results of which should be announced later this month.”

“Thirdly, there’s cloud computing, with the Helix Nebula project,” announces Bob, sitting up. “We’re testing it using ATLAS simulation software and plan to expand the testing to more experiments in the future. It’s a radically new way of providing computing resources. Instead of procuring the hardware and then maintaining and managing it, we procure the service from a commercial infrastructure provider within the Helix Nebula partnership, providing network access, storage and CPU.” The other thing he likes about the system is its flexibility. “It’s a pay-as-you-go scheme,” he explains. “So you only pay for the resources you actually use.”

The first two years of the project are a pilot phase, in which performance issues like functionality and reliability will be tested, and questions like applicable legislation in relation to the use of cloud services not physically located on the CERN site. The costing needs to be understood too, and CERN, with the two other international organisations involved (the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and the European Space Agency (ESA)), needs to address confidentiality and privacy issues in relation to cloud computing.

“EMBL and ESA deal with patient information and sensitive geophysical data, so they have additional security concerns,” explains Bob. “This is why the project serves as a testing ground, because it covers many different potential uses. Then, when the various issues have been resolved, the system should be fit to be rolled out to national institutes in what is known as the European Research Area.”

by Joannah Caborn Wengler