collaboration

I do so love it when several interests come together, in this case science and free software. More specifically the Australian Synchrotron and Linux.

For my first Science Communication assignment, I had the opportunity to interview UWA‘s Dr Peter Hammond about his research team that observed fluorescence from doubly excited states in helium at the Daresbury Synchrotron Radiation Source in the UK. At about that time a $5 million commitment by the WA Consortium was announced which would fund work in Dr Hammond’s field and use of the Australian Synchrotron.

About the size of a football field, the new Australian Synchrotron will accelerate electrons which, when bent with magnets, produce high energy light. These beams of light are used to examine materials so that scientists can study their structure and behaviour. This technology is used by researchers in the areas of biotechnology, mining, health, and agriculture.

Ever since having the opportunity to meet Dr Hammond, I have looked out for more news of the Australian Synchrotron.

Stephen posted to the [LINK] mailing list, excerpts from AARNews Issue 7, March 2007 (PDF – 785Kb): “Focus on the Australian Synchrotron” and “Spotlight on Australian Instrumentation and Computing Team”. I particularly like these bits:

The computing hardware used on the Australian Synchrotron is a mixture of commercial off-the-shelf components, server class PC hardware and specialist data acquisition and signal conditioning hardware.

The software is based on an international collaboration called “EPICS” standing for Experimental Physics and Industrial Control Systems.

Most synchrotron facilities use EPICS, and all those that do contribute to it – including the Australian synchrotron. It is a powerful collaboration in the spirit of both scientific research and the success of other collaborations such as the Linux operating system.

The Australian Synchrotron also uses Linux in various forms for its real-time data collection, its data storage and its operator interfaces. There are about 300 computers at the facility, ranging from embedded PCs with Debian Linux, server class machines running a real-time Linux, ARM processors running Linux and CENTOS and REDHAT Linux servers and workstations.

Connectivity to AARNet, the GRID and remote research networks is currently being looked at, and research is also being performed into virtual beamlines to be used for remote collaboration and training purposes.

and

The Team has taken EPICS software, which has existed and evolved for many years, and applied it to modern hardware, operating systems and devices.

This approach has meant that many older and more conventional signal processing techniques co-exist in harmony with newer techniques and are “held” together with a common code base and communications protocols.

Also, since the team members knew the software well – and being open source helped — they were able to guide the contractors’ staff, train together and deliver quality systems that integrated, not only at the plant level, but also at the source code level.

In fact, one of the major achievements of the team is the ability to compile and release any version of source code for all systems in an automated fashion. This level of control and discipline over the software for such a complex machine is extremely unusual in the community and bug-fixing unique it its class. It is one of the factors that has enabled the commissioning of the facility to move faster than any comparable facility in the world.

The work of the Australian Instrumentation and Computing Team and Dr Hammond’s development of experimental methods for use by scientists is behind the scenes. But it does allow research scientists to conduct their experiments using the synchrotron without detailed knowledge of the underlying technology.

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