Feature - People behind the LHC grid: Jamie Shiers
Jamie Shiers is part of grid support for the Large Hadron Collider, and has been working on the LHC for 16 of his 25 years at CERN. Dressed in sneakers and jeans, and looking tan after a recent grid conference in Brazil, he talked with iSGTW at CERN's Restaurant 1.
iSGTW: What first got you interested in physics?
JS: It could be something in the genes, I suppose. I and two of my three brothers became physicists-and we've all passed through CERN.
For me, what helped to get me hooked was a book about physics, called "Mister Tompkins in Wonderland," that I read at age 14 or 15, by George Gamow-a Russian physicist who worked with Niels Bohr. He wrote about a world in which light was slowed down enough that you could see the effects of relativity. It was a great book that turned me on to physics . . . that, and the old cult, UK sci-fi "Dr Who" television series.
JS: I can look at my calendar and find the exact week. It was in September 1992, at the same conference in which we discussed the uses of the World Wide Web, applications, and object oriented computing. So, it was from very early days.
JS: It sort of just happened. I was an experimental physics PhD student here at CERN, from Britain, when I realized "Right, I am in computing."
JS: In May, we met or exceeded all of the metrics in our last Common Computing Readiness Challenge, even though I have to say that not all functionality was fully tested and the overlap from the experiments was somewhat limited.
So I feel confident.
But we know that the coming of the real data will be the real test; there may not be as tight a synchronization as we expect, for example. From my experience with the LEP, I know that there's always something that you planned for that didn't work the way you thought, or a solution that comes up that works so much better than what you previously had in mind.
What works is what flies.
JS: Absolutely. From that experience, we know that there will not be any show-stopper. There's always a way up, over, under, around or through any problem.
The big picture
iSGTW: What do you do in the LHCGrid project?
JS: My role is to keep it all running smoothly. It's easy to see your own little bit of this enormous undertaking, but not the overall picture. You might find a solution here that breaks something over there. You are also dealing with different time zones, different cultures, in institutions with their own priorities.
It's an exciting time. We don't know exactly what we will find, but we know that there will be big headlines in physics, and we'll be sitting in that auditorium upstairs when it's announced.
JS: At the petascale level of computing, there are very few places with resources on the level of a Los Alamos or a Lawrence Livermore, that can afford their own supercomputers. But with grids, you can get access to big resources, using commodity computers, for a price that is an order of magnitude lower.
And with that infrastructure, you inherently have a more equal collaboration. The Tier-0, Tier-1s, and Tier-2s are all equal in this project, with the small institutions more than pulling their weight. I'm willing to bet that when we do the first pass at the Tier-0, we won't find anything definitive, not only because there will be little time but also because the calibrations and even algorithms will not be fully tuned. The findings will likely be at the Tier-1s on the re-processed data with refined calibrations and algorithms, and from analyses performed primarily at the Tier-2s.
As I wrote in the paper I just presented in Brazil, ("Grid Today, Clouds on the Horizon") with grids, you're actually building something-a long-term and sustainable e-infrastructure for the future, that helps institutes do science and research
And who knows where that might lead.
Lightning may strike twice.
-Dan Drollette, iSGTW