Accelerated monitoring

The emergency control panel is undoubtedly one of the most vital components of the device some feared would create a mini-black hole that would swallow the Earth.

While CERN’s Large Hadron Supercollider (LHC), that runs underneath Geneva, qualifies as one of humankind’s most ambitious scientific contraptions, building systems such as the technical infrastructure monitoring (TIM) system involved challenges common to any complex IT project.

Peter Sollander, head of technical infrastructure operation at CERN, was tasked with ensuring the remote monitoring system was capable of handling two million messages a day, sourced from 150 systems across 50,000 different measuring points. When he started work on it in 2003 “we didn’t have any of the LHC data available”. Scalability was therefore a major requirement for the Java messaging system (JMS) server that passes data from a variety of equipment to the TIM desk in CERN’s central control room.

Having settled on SonicMQ from Progress Software, the TIM system now works alongside the accelerator and cryogenic monitoring systems, displaying alerts and diagnostics from an eclectic range of equipment, “some of which is several generations old.” The desk displays alerts and runs diagnostics on systems ranging from cooling to ventilators, and is staffed by operators 365 days a year. Such a system is vital, says Sollander, “because you can’t send someone into the tunnel to check while the beam is on.”

TIM proved its worth after the LHC short-circuited in September, necessitating a shutdown period and repairs over the winter months (apparently a great relief to the citizens of Switzerland who were keen to ensure the country’s electricity grid was available for heating rather than particle collision).

“The TIM system doesn’t pick up the magnetic current, but it did detect an oxygen deficiency in the tunnel after helium was released (low pressure liquid helium flows along the magnets in heat exchanger tubes acting as coolant),” Sollander explains. “The incident caused a hole in the container, and triggered an emergency stop signal.”

While the short circuit was disappointing, especially for a world bracing itself for a series of mind-boggling scientific revelations, simply turning on the beam in early September “was a great success.”

“Everyone was surprised at how quickly it came together,” Sollander says. “An awful lot of things have to go right.”

Rumours of black hole creation were, of course, unfounded. “It’s sad that it came to that,” says Sollander. “A lot of people don’t know what happens inside a particle accelerator.” Luckily, the infrastructure monitoring system does.

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