CERN is widely recognised as one of the world’s leading laboratories for particle physics. At CERN, physicists and engineers probe the fundamental structure of the universe. To do this, they use the world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments – particle accelerators and detectors – to study the basic constituents of matter and the forces that shape the universe. Technologies developed at CERN go on to have a significant impact through their applications in wider society.
CERN has had an important role in the history of computing and networks. The World Wide Web (WWW) was invented at CERN by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. The web was originally conceived and developed to meet the demand for automated information-sharing between scientists at universities and institutes around the world. Grid computing was also developed at CERN with partners and thanks to funding from the European Commission. The organisation also carries out activities in the areas of cybersecurity, big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), data preservation, and quantum technology.
Digital policy issues
- Cloud computing
The scale and complexity of data from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest particle accelerator, is unprecedented. This data needs to be stored, easily retrieved, and analysed by physicists all over the world. This requires massive storage facilities, global networking, immense computing power, and funding. CERN did not initially have the computing or financial resources to crunch all of the data on site, so in 2002 it turned to grid computing to share the burden with computer centres around the world. The Worldwide Large Hadron Collider Computing Grid (WLCG) builds on the ideas of grid technology initially proposed in 1999 by Ian Foster and Carl Kesselman. The WLCG relies on a distributed computing infrastructure, as data from the clashes of protons or heavy ions is distributed via the Internet for processing at data centres worldwide. This approach of using ‘virtual machines’ is based on the same paradigm as cloud computing. It is expected that further CERN developments in the field of data processing will continue to influence digital technologies.
- Telecommunications infrastructure
In the 1970s, CERN developed CERNET, a lab-wide network to access mainframe computers in its data centre. This pioneering network eventually led CERN to become an early European adopter of TCP/IP for use in connecting systems on site. In 1989, CERN opened its first external TCP/IP connections and by 1990, CERN had become the largest Internet site in Europe and was ready to host the first WWW server. Nowadays, in addition to the WLCG and its distributed computing infrastructure, CERN is also the host of the CERN Internet eXchange Point (CIXP), which optimises CERN’s Internet connectivity and is also open to interested Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
- Digital standards
Ever since releasing the World Wide Web software under an open-source model in 1994, CERN has been a pioneer in the open-source field, supporting open-source hardware (with the CERN Open Hardware Licence), open access (with the Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics - SCOAP3) and open data (with the CERN Open Data Portal). Several CERN technologies are being developed with open access in mind, such as Indico, Invenio, Zenodo. Open-source software, such as CERNBox, CTA, EOS, FTS, GeantIV, ROOT , RUCIO, SWAN have been developed to handle, distribute and analyse the huge volumes of data generated by the LHC experiments and are also made available to the wider society.
- Data governance
CERN manages vast amounts of data, and not only scientific data, but also data in more common formats such as webpages, images and videos, documents, and more. For instance, the CERN Data Centre processes on average one petabyte (one million gigabytes) of data per day. As such, the organisation notes that it faces the challenge of preserving its digital memory. It also points to the fact that many of the tools that are used to preserve data generated by the LHC and other scientific projects are also suitable for preserving other types of data and are made available to the wider society.
- Artificial intelligence
Through CERN openlab, CERN collaborates with leading ICT companies and research institutes. The R&D projects carried out through CERN openlab are currently addressing topics related to data acquisition, computing platforms, data storage architectures, compute provisioning and management, networks and communication, machine learning and data analytics, and quantum technologies. CERN researchers are using machine learning techniques as part of their efforts to ‘maximise the potential for discovery...and optimise resources usage’. Machine learning is used, for instance, to improve the performance of LHC experiments in areas such as particle detection and managing computing resources. Going one step further, at the intersection of AI and quantum computing, CERN openlab is exploring the feasibility of using quantum algorithms to track the particles produced by collisions in the LHC, and is working on developing quantum algorithms to help optimise how data is distributed for storage in the WLCG.