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The Large Hadron Collider's mega-pic churn

If you can't destroy the world, drown it in data

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Blogs The Large Hadron Collider has been operating for a few months now, and it hasn’t ripped apart the space/time continuum – not where I live, anyway, and that’s mostly all I care about. Of course, it could be that it’s still early, and that the cumulative effects of accelerating particles really fast could still spell the end of everything. Until that happens, the LHC is generating enough data to keep scientists busy from now until doomsday (unless doomsday is in the next couple of years).

A recent story from Forbes tech correspondent Lee Gomes brought home the scale of the LHC and the storage challenge. The 150 million sensors each take 40 million pictures per second – which results in what anyone will admit is a fairly large amount of data. In terms of pictures per second, we’re talking six thousand trillion: a six with 15 zeros, or 6x1015. That’s only slightly more pictures than my mom takes at a family reunion using her 15-year-old 35mm camera – and far less annoying.

According to the story, most of this data is just uninteresting noise. But it all has to be sifted through to figure out which bits are worth a closer look. The total amount of ‘good stuff’ should amount to around 15 petabytes per year.

To crunch through this treasure trove of data, the WLGC (Worldwide LHC Computing Grid) utilizes systems in more than 130 sites across the world, totaling more than 100,000 processors. Data from collider runs is sent to Tier 1 sites at a rate of 4GB/sec, where it is archived to tape for future analysis.

These same sites also feed data out to secondary sites as needed to feed their research appetites. There are some interesting videos on the CERN site discussing the grid and the challenge of handling LHC data.

So far the LHC has yet to find the Higgs boson or other particles or forces predicted by theoretical physics, but that’s the cool thing about having a Large Hadron Collider – it means you can finally test to see how closely reality conforms to theory.

If they do manage to figure out the true nature of the universe by recreating conditions that existed at the moment after the Big Bang, you can be sure it will be covered in The Reg… unless there’s some late-breaking scandal involving salacious text messages and nude starlets. In that case, we’ll cover the universe thing a few days later. ®

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