Happy Re-Birthday, CERN!


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Mar 31, 2010 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

I picked up the paper today and read about the CERN Large Hadron Collider and its successful launching, so I had to write a blog about it to congratulate them!

It was many years ago that I was at a Linux conference in Wurtzberg, Germany. It was a great conference, held in a medieval fortress at the top of a tall hill. Each day you would walk down the hill into town, and the biggest decision you would have to make was whether you were going to have really good beer or really good wine. I met a friend of mine, Martin Michlmayr for the first time at that conference.

At the end of the conference I got a phone call from a Digital Equipment Corporation salesman in Geneva, Switzerland. He told me that I had to come to CERN immediately, for there was an emergency. I asked him what the emergency was and he said that he could not explain it over the phone, I would have to come to CERN. More importantly, I was the only person at Digital that could help with this problem.

I told him that I was to fly home the next day. He told me no, that my airline ticket had been canceled and that my rental car had been extended a week and would be dropped off at the airport nearest CERN. He also told me that my boss had been contacted and that he agreed I should go to CERN.

I checked my email, and there was the confirmation by my manager.

So the next morning I got in the car and started driving toward CERN. In those days there was not really a “speed limit” on the autobahn, and I more or less floored the poor auto's accelerator the whole way. I was still being passed by Mercedes and Porches, but I made good time.

I got to CERN, checked into my hotel and met with the salesman.

“What is the problem,” I asked.

“It is the engineers at CERN,” he said. “Management made a decision to replace all their desktop Unix workstations with Windows NT systems to save money. They had replaced about one-third of the desktops with Windows NT, then went back to see how the engineers were doing. They were all gone.”

“What was gone?” I asked.

“The Windows NT”, he said. “They had all installed Linux.”

“Yes,” I said, “so what is the problem?”

“The management does not know how to react to this. They want to know why the engineers did this.”

“Why don't they ask the engineers?” I asked.

“They are afraid to ask,” he replied. “That is why they sent for you.”

So the next day I sat down with ten engineers, and the engineers all told me the same story:

“Yes, I understand the management wants to save money, but I do not know Windows NT. I know Unix. I program Unix. I can stop doing my work for nine months and learn how to program Windows NT in an efficient way, with little or no real work being done, or they can let me use Linux on my desktop.”

So I explained this to the management of CERN, and I have to admit that it only took them ten minutes to formulate a new policy:

“In the future Windows NT and Linux will co-exist on the desktop.”

A bit later I spent some time talking with management about Linux and supercomputers. I told a story about a friend of mine that compared Linux Beowulf systems versus a well-known brand of supercomputer of that day. My friend's story always ended with a count-down like David Letterman of the “five reasons why a Beowulf system is better than your proprietary supercomputer”:

  • Reason number Five: It is cheaper
  • Reason number Four: You can grow it incrementally
  • Reason number Three: When a proprietary supercomputer goes down, it costs a lot of money to fix it, but with Beowulf systems you could go to Walmart and buy the replacement part
  • Reason number Two: When a proprietary supercomputer goes down, it often takes several days to fix it, but with Beowulf systems you could usually fix it yourself in a short period of time.
  • The number one reason why Linux Beowulf systems (which had the same ABIs as their desktop systems and servers) were better than a traditional supercomputer was that you could actually get applications for the Beowulf systems.

The senior project leader looked at me strangely, and took me to a glassed-in area that overlooked the CERN computing facilities.

“See that supercomputer down there?” he said. “We are replacing that with a Beowulf tomorrow, because we can get applications for the Beowulf.”

I am proud that Linux has had such a prevalent place in the high-performance computing market for so long, and I hope that the Free Software community continues to help places like CERN develop great computing facilities.

“Happy Re-birthday CERN”, and great work!

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