Cern taps home PCs for virtual atom smashing

Summary:The LHC@home 2.0 platform uses virtual machines on volunteers' computers to simulate atomic particle collisions in the Large Hadron Collider and lets people contribute to physics research

Cern has launched a virtual atom-smasher for home computers, which allows people to contribute to fundamental physics research from the Large Hadron Collider.

Cern diagram

The LHC@home 2.0 platform, launched in beta, uses virtual machines on volunteers' computers to simulate atomic particle collisions in the Large Hadron Collider. Image credit: Cern website

LHC@home 2.0, which officially opened in public beta on Monday, provides a way for volunteers to donate spare computing power from their PCs and laptops to simulate particle smashes like those that occur inside the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). It is the first distributed computing project to use virtual machines on volunteers' computers, according to Cern scientist Ben Segal.

"Simulations run in a virtual machine on a client PC," said Segal, the chief technology officer for LHC@home 2.0. "Jobs are fed in from Cern, from outside, and pulled back in. What's new is using virtual machines [in distributed computing] — that's never been done before."

To participate, people download open-source virtualisation software. The first project to be conducted under the public beta is Test4Theory, which already has 2,000 users from the limited trial of the platform, according to Segal. The project is hoping to get over 50,000 volunteers eventually.

Particle smashes

The scientists at Cern want to compare the volunteers' models of particle smashes with real events measured by the LHC. This will help them check whether there are discrepancies between the data expected using a group of physics theories called the Standard Model, and actual data from the physical universe. Finding disagreement could lead to the discovery of new phenomena, according to Cern.

The simulations will feed into research about the Higgs boson, a particle that could explain current theories of mass, as well as into research into areas such as super-symmetry.

The new beta platform is an extension of LHC@home, launched in 2004, which simulates the stability of particles travelling around the LHC. The LHC@home 2.0 platform started to gain momentum two years ago, when it launched in alpha, according to Cern.

Open source

Volunteers download an x86 Sun Microsystems virtualisation software package called VirtualBox, which is used to run the simulations on home computers. Cern uses an open-source distributed computing platform called Boinc to manage the Test4Theory tasks on volunteer machines.

The use of open-source software allows Cern to manage different operating systems on participating home PCs and to harmonise those computers with Cern's systems, according to Segal.

"Volunteer computers mainly have Windows, and Cern applications run on Linux," he said. "We can port to various platforms."

Boinc, which is used in distributed and grid-computing projects such as Seti@home (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), allows Cern to centrally manage jobs pushed out to volunteer computers. The organisation's datacentre, the Cern Computer Centre, hosts a central scheduler system that feeds volunteer computers with jobs.

The simulations are based on Monte Carlo algorithms, which rely on repeated random samples to get results.

"It's a way of simulating complicated random events," said Segal. "Instead of computing all of it, we throw the dice and follow one event through to the end. That's how the LHC works, too."


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Topics: Emerging Tech

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Tom is a technology reporter for ZDNet.com, writing about all manner of security and open-source issues.Tom had various jobs after leaving university, including working for a company that hired out computers as props for films and television, and a role turning the entire back catalogue of a publisher into e-books.Tom eventually found tha... Full Bio

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