Open Source Success: CERN

In this section of FOSSlife, we will be sharing notable open source success stories and highlighting ways in which open source has facilitated advances in or provided opportunities for research and learning. When deciding which story to highlight first, the obvious choice to me was CERN (the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire or, in English, European Council for Nuclear Research). From its beginnings, the organization has espoused the principles of openness and collaboration, and its history involves not only the creation of the World Wide Web itself but also the discovery of the so-called God Particle, or Higgs boson.

Open Source Beginnings

According to its overall mission, the organization, which was established in 1954 and headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, “helps to uncover what the universe is made of and how it works.” Additionally, in true open source spirit, CERN’s convention states that “the results of its experimental and theoretical work shall be published or otherwise made generally available.”

This goal of understanding the universe is facilitated by providing particle accelerator facilities to scientists and researchers “to advance the boundaries of human knowledge.” In keeping with this mission, since 2008, CERN has operated and maintained the world’s largest proton collider – the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – which led to the discovery of the Higgs boson.

Years earlier, however, another invention laid the groundwork for the type of international collaboration needed to foster such unparalleled scientific advances. Specifically, in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web (WWW) while working at CERN. Berners-Lee first drafted the idea as a proposal for “Information Management.” Or, as the CERN website says, the WWW was “conceived and developed to meet the demand for automatic information-sharing between scientists in universities and institutes around the world.”

CERN’s history page explains it this way:

“CERN is not an isolated laboratory, but rather a focus for an extensive community that includes more than 10,000 scientists from over 100 countries. … The basic idea of the WWW was to merge the technologies of personal computers, computer networking and hypertext into a powerful and easy to use global information system.”

A few years later, in 1993, CERN put the WWW software into the public domain. CERN also released a version under an open license as a way to maximize distribution of the software and allow the concept to grow.

Open Source Science

Within the principles of open source, the building blocks or fundamental components of any technology should be freely and openly accessible so that the technology can be studied, modified, and redistributed as needed. With that in mind, CERN can be seen as an open source pioneer not only through its early posture of openly sharing research and the development and open licensing of the World Wide Web, but also through numerous other initiatives, including support of open source hardware with the recently updated CERN Open Hardware License, increasing access to research articles, and through the Open Data Portal, which lets researchers explore more than two petabytes of open data relating to the LHC experiments.

In keeping with this open source philosophy, CERN has through the years steadily migrated away from the use of proprietary tools and technologies and moved toward open source solutions. According to the website, more than 90 percent of the center’s computing resources are provided through a private cloud based on OpenStack, a collaboratively developed open source cloud computing platform.

In 2018, CERN launched the Microsoft Alternatives project (MAlt) to continue these efforts and to "investigate the migration from commercial software products (Microsoft and others) to open-source solutions, so as to minimise CERN's exposure to the risks of unsustainable commercial conditions." According to CERN’s Emmanuel Ormancey, this project allows CERN to “demonstrate that building core services can be done without vendor and data lock-in.” In a related move, CERN earlier this year ended its trial of Facebook Workplace and began adopting a suite of alternative solutions. Through these efforts, CERN is leading the way for other research institutions facing similar challenges.

Open Source Power

The power behind CERN’s immense scientific computing infrastructure lies in the 230,000 processor cores and 15,000 continuously running servers that comprise its Data Centre. And, recently, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, CERN has directed some of that research and computing power toward open solutions that benefit humankind. 

In April 2020, CERN announced that it would contribute 10,000 computer cores of that processing power to Folding@home, a project that harnesses distributed computing power to simulate the dynamics of proteins in the coronavirus behind COVID-19. The announcement followed the Folding@home project’s release of a new software client allowing the prioritization of COVID-19 projects.

Additionally, CERN scientists are developing a ventilator with a simple design that “can be deployed in areas with limited resources and unstable power distribution.” The design will be published under the CERN Open Hardware License so that equipment may be produced and adapted as needed. The ventilator project is part of the larger CERN against COVID-19 initiative, which was launched in March to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sijbrand de Jong writes that CERN’s founding members saw the organization’s potential as “a centre of excellence for basic research, a driver of innovation, a provider of first-class education and a catalyst for peace.” Given its impressive list of inventions, innovations, scientific breakthroughs, and support of open source principles, CERN’s achievements are a clear sign of success.

Get Involved

Note that if you’re interested in participating in CERN’s efforts in the field of particle physics, the agency has a volunteer computing platform called LHC@home in addition to its own computing power. This project lets you “donate idle time on your computer to help physicists compare theory with experiment, in the search for new fundamental particles and answers to questions about the Universe.”