The Data Supercollider

The Large Hadron Collider: asset management at universal scale


Chris Middleton reports from Geneva on the hidden story of CERN: enterprise asset management on a colossal scale.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is big: the largest and most complex machine in history. CERN’s €7.5 billion particle accelerator runs in a 27km loop under the border between Switzerland and France, where scientists use it to smash subatomic particles together at just under the speed of light, recreating the conditions that existed when the universe was less than a second old.

The statistics about CERN are extraordinary. Twelve thousand scientists work at the facility, along with 2,500 support staff and 2,000 contractors. The billions of collisions that occur every second in the LHC equal one terabyte of data a second – 86.4 petabytes of data a day – which are sent to 600 universities and research institutes in 20 CERN member states and 70 other countries.

But there is an untold story behind this supermassive data project: the fact that it all hinges on over 100 million separate high-tech components – from the tiniest widget to the largest supra-cooled magnet – in two million separate pieces of equipment.

These are supported by 900,000 technical documents covering 13 million technology parameters, not to mention a data centre of 20,000 servers. Without good asset management, the failure of any one component might present a challenge as great as finding the Higgs Boson.

Science as big as a town

The path of the LHC.

In a campus the size of a town, it’s essential that any fault can be traced and fixed rapidly, and that any part’s replacement or upgrade is planned and budgeted for well in advance. This is why everything at the facility has its own equipment number and barcode, and is logged in CERN’s Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) platform.

So why is something as mundane as EAM of such critical importance to cutting-edge science? David Widegren heads the Asset & Maintenance Management unit at CERN. He explains: “Many of our assets have a long life, perhaps 50 years. Long life cycles combined with staff churn make documenting our assets and interventions a must. Outsourcing maintenance is another must, but that also makes it essential for there to be a single repository of assets, history, and deep knowledge. Work isn’t finished until the result is imported into the EAM system.”

CERN is using Infor EAM, which allows a 360-degree Street-View-style visualisation of each piece of gear, and tells the user precisely where it is on the campus and what it’s connected to. Via this system, CERN logs one million store transactions, 10,000 corrective work orders annually, and three million work orders overall.

Clearly, EAM is essential, and the system needs to be both reliable and predictable, adds Widegren. “Common tools bring common processes, which create savings and internal efficiencies. So we have a strategy of having a single EAM platform, with close to zero modifications of the software: only standard configurations and external add-ons and integrations. By not doing modifications, you can typically upgrade within 24 hours and be up and running with a new version.”

Widegren explains that, just as the universe began small with a single event, so asset management at CERN begins at the earliest stage of a component’s life: at its design and manufacture, which often takes place on the campus itself.

“In this way, they’re already in the system, with information on how they’re performing. Disposal and waste are important considerations, too – some things become radioactive! Also there’s a wide range of user profiles on the system, such as maintenance managers, engineers, equipment specialists, physicists, technicians – both internal and contractors – and so on. They’re all linked via EAM.”

Big data insights

But it is not just data about assets that’s critical at CERN, but also data from these assets: operational insights from each component. “This combination of asset management with connected equipment, and the data we capture from these assets, is really the way forward,” says Widegren. “We call it the intersection of industrial IoT and EAM. This is the sweet spot for the future. And by seeing how each component is used, we can optimise its maintenance, so we can see what’s costly to maintain and what we need to focus on.”

Kevin Price is Infor’s director of product management and safety for EAM. He says, “CERN has been using our system since 1989, so if they can’t figure out a way to do it, then it can’t be done!”

1989 was also the year in which Sir Tim Berners Lee proposed what became the World Wide Web at CERN. Sir Tim’s original Web server is still on site – including his sticky label warning people not to switch it off. Hopefully that’s on the EAM system, too. Today, EAM doesn’t just help CERN understand where everything on the campus came from and how it’s performing, but also everything in the universe. Now that’s a big data project.

• A version of this article was first published on Hack & Craft News.

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© Chris Middleton 2017