How Open Source Helped CERN Find the Higgs Boson

Boson Buddies

Exploring New Technologies

CERN takes a break of two years to upgrade its systems. The next major upgrade is scheduled for 2019 and 2020. The IT team at CERN is already researching, exploring, and preparing for the upgrade of the computing environment that will start in 2020.

CERN runs a very flat network structure, without any significant amount of tenant isolation. They don't need such isolation, because the data is available to the general public. With the emergence of IoT, though, CERN is now looking at isolation.

"We are starting to now explore some of the more sophisticated uses of Neutron to deploy those for our cloud. We run a basic flat Linux bridge structure, but we are exploring solutions like Tungsten Fabric to be able to produce tenant isolation for the Pension fund, the medical systems, or the surveillance cameras," he said.

CERN is also exploring the possibilities of GPUs, TensorFlow, and other software-defined technologies that can be usable in high-energy physics. They are also looking into machine learning. I thought it would be much easier for CERN to use machine learning to find particles like the Higgs boson. I was wrong.

"A difficulty of using machine learning, in particular, as we start to look at doing research, is that you can't train anything because you don't know what you're going to discover. When you don't know what the Higgs boson looks like, how do you train something to look for the Higgs boson?" he said.

However, CERN is investigating the use of machine learning in many areas. "It's still quite a new technology, and it takes a while to apply this to the research use cases. Since the accelerator is running, the priority is on ensuring that data is recorded and processed correctly. Shutdown periods allow people to have a look at new technologies at that point," said Bell.

But the CERN teams don't wait for these shutdown periods: "We are constantly exploring new technologies, but if we want to do significant change, then at that point, that's when we start to bring it in over that [upgrade] period, since we aren't faced with the deluge of data coming from the accelerator," said Bell. "During the previous upgrade cycle (2011-2012), we deployed OpenStack; it was a very natural point at which you bring in tools like Puppet and Grafana, which bring significant changes to the infrastructure. But there's constant incremental change. We continue to update our software stack."

The People

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to work in CERN's IT team. It's all about looking at the future. Bell has a team of around 55 people. "When we go out to recruit people, we look for people who are able to adapt and rapidly adopt new technologies. It's not so much about what they have done, it's more about have they shown and demonstrated the ability to learn new technologies," Bell said.

CERN also invites visitors from other universities around the globe and has collaborated with industry players. At the moment, CERN is working on OpenStack with Huawei, which funds some people to work on solving scalability challenges in the LHC. In return, these challenges also help solve problems for the industry; in terms of scalability, LHC is today where the industry will be in the future. "Everything that we do at CERN is contributed back to the project," Bell said.

Inspiring Future Generations

CERN uses its infrastructure to motivate kids in getting excited about science. With the CERN Open Data Portal, children can come and run simulations like physicists. CERN also works with universities and schools so students can learn about the discoveries made at CERN. "We have a very open data policy," said Bell. "We're very keen on open access publishing. People ought to be able to read the results of the papers that CERN have done."

More than 80,000 school kids visit CERN every year. Teachers from different countries are nominated and win prizes to come to CERN. "During summer we welcomed over 200 summer students who came to work at CERN for nine weeks to get a chance to be exposed to the physics and the computing and the engineering," he said. "Next year, CERN will have an open day during the autumn where people can come along and go underground to actually see the detectors up close. There is nothing more impressive than seeing a cathedral-size 7,000-ton piece of scientific equipment."


  1. "CERN scientists have witnessed the decay of the Higgs boson particle" by Luke Dormehl on Digital Trends, 30 August 2018:
  2. "Smallest sliver of time yet measured sees electrons fleeing atom" by Rebecca Boyle, New Scientist , 11 November 2016:
  3. SKA:

The Author

Swapnil Bhartiya is a writer and journalist covering Linux and open source for more than 10 years. He is also a science fiction writer whose stories have been broadcast on Indian radio and published in leading Indian magazines. He founded an open source web magazine while living in Europe. Swapnil currently resides in Washington, DC.

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