Canada maintains major player status in ATLAS project with CFI assistance

Guest Contributor
April 28, 2006

An award by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) through its rarely used Exceptional Opportunities Fund (EOF) will allow Canadian scientists to play a significant role in a major project being developed at the CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC) facility in Switzerland. The CFI funding of $10.5 million will go towards the construction of a Tier I ATLAS Data Centre at TRIUMF, Canada's national lab for particle and nuclear physics on the campus of the Univ of British Columbia. TRIUMF will be home to one of 10 primary data collection sites around the world comprising the largest computing grid ever created.

The Centre will receive, filter, analyze and store data for the ATLAS detector, which measures particle collisions generated by the LHC. At about 40 million collisions per second, the amount of data to be generated is massive and will be distributed through a grid architecture to 10 global computing facilities for processing and analysis.

A funding request for Canada's Tier I participation in ATLAS was included in TRIUMF's last five-year funding proposal, which was announced in the Feb/05 Liberal Budget. When the Budget provided less than was requested, TRIUMF was forced to allocate its resources, cutting the ATLAS Data Centre loose to pursue alternative funding. What followed was more than one year of lobbying to secure the necessary funding source, which led to the CFI's EOF and an application by Simon Fraser Univ (SFU) representing several Canadian universities.

"There was an urgency of having to build this facility. We could not wait for the next (CFI) competition decision later this year," says Dr Michael Vetterli, a physics professor at Simon Fraser Univ and computing coordinator for the ALTAS Data Centre. "It's huge for us because we will be able to fully participate in the extraction and analysis of the results. It will allow us to take a leadership role ... This funding is for the computing power to handle the data from the ATLAS project. We'll be using CA*net 4 for a dedicated link between TRIUMF and CERN."

The results of the next major CFI competition are expected this November, at which time most of the agency's funding will be committed. A pledge by the previous Liberal government to provide $500 million in new capitalization was lost when the Liberals lost the election. The new Conservative government has not made any commitments to new CFI financing.

Installation of the data centre's equipment will begin this summer a with full-scale testing slated to commence in early fall.

The EOF was approved by the CFI board in late 2003 as a mechanism to seize time-sensitive research opportunities before they are permanently lost. Until the ATLAS Data Centre project, the EOF had been used just once in 2004 for a structural protein facility at the Univ of Toronto. Like other CFI programs, the EOF provides 40% of a project's capital costs.

"It's a terrifically important investment and keeps Canada playing in the major leagues in particle physics," says CFI president and CEO, Dr Eliot Phillipson. "We liaised with the National Science Advisor's office (NSA) and other research funding organizations on the larger picture for big science funding ... This one had an urgency and it was decided to use the EOF."

$24 MILLION PRICETAG

The ATLAS Centre Data Centre has a total project value of $24 million. CFI's contribution provides $8 million for capital and $2.5 million for operating. It will trigger additional investments including $4 million from the British Columbia Knowledge Development Fund. A significant portion of the cost will be borne by heavy discounting by the successful computer vendor. SFU has initiated a request for information process to solicit bids from major equipment vendors such as Sun, Dell and IBM. Based on past major purchases, Vetterli says the discount could be as high as 50%.

The CFI investment ensures that previous investments made by Canada in the ATLAS project are not orphaned. Between 1997 and 2005, Canadian participation in ATLAS totalled $67 million. That includes $37 million for the ATLAS accelerator, funded through TRIUMF and approximately $30 million from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). NSERC support includes $15.5 million in capital costs through its sub atomic physics envelope (research tools and instrumentation) and $14 million in operating support.

FUNDING SYSTEM NEEDS STREAMLINING

The ATLAS Data Centre's funding saga reinforces ongoing concerns about the way Canada funds large science facilities or participation in international projects like the LHC at CERN. Vetterli says he has been unable to pursue his own research for the past year as he helped to marshall the project through Ottawa's funding channels. He welcomes the big science framework recently released by the NSA.

"It's a very complex and time-consuming process ... It would be nice to have one-stop shopping for researchers. This has been my research time for the past year," says Vetterli. "In canada, once you get the funds there is flexibility, unlike the US. That's a good aspect of the Canadian system."

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