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The Higgs Boson: Another Feather in Linux’s Cap

It’s not exactly any secret that Linux dominates the world of high-performance computing, so perhaps it should go without saying that last week’s exciting Higgs Boson announcement would involve Linux in some not-insignificant way.

The reality, however, turns out to be far greater than marginal significance.

In fact, “Linux Played a Crucial Role in Discovery of ‘Higgs boson'” is the headline of a story calling attention to the real role Linux played, and it’s an inspiring tale.

‘Throwing Linux Some Love’

“I want to mention how Linux (specifically, Scientific Linux and Ubuntu) had a vital role in the discovery of the new boson at CERN,” reads a quote by an unnamed physicist at CERN in the Ubuntu Vibes article.

“We use it every day in our analyses, together with hosts of open software, such as ROOT, and it plays a major role in the running of our networks of computers (in the grid etc.) used for the intensive work in our calculations,” the official adds.

“Yesterday’s extremely important discovery has given us new information about how reality works at a very fundamental level and this is one physicist throwing Linux some love,” the quote concludes.

Also mentioned in the story is a dedicated support site for Linux at CERN.

‘Nothing Helps More Than Coffee!’

Did Linux fans seize upon the news with all the tenaciousness of a Higgsian boson-hunter? You bet they did. And in the Linux blogosphere, the conversation hasn’t died down since.

“The only thing that would be newsworthy is if you managed to do something highly technical without having Linux play a vital role,” said blogger eldavojohn in the discussion on Slashdot, for example. “For everyone who thinks that a complete absence of Linux is the norm: Did you use the internet?”

Indeed, “didn’t we already prove linux has a place in the world? Why are we still getting these stories still trying to validate linux,” mused detain.

Then again: “Let’s not forget THE most important members of the team: the folks who made the coffee!” quipped Anonymous Coward. “NOTHING helps more with analysis than fresh pots and pots of coffee! C++ and Linux — pffft! Gimme enough coffee and all I need is an abacus, some graph paper and colored pencils!”

‘It Has Become the Standard’

The conversation quickly devolved from there, so Linux Girl knew it was time to take to the streets of the blogosphere for some fresh insight.

“When you need to do serious computing you need serious software, and Linux is practically synonymous with High Performance Computing,” noted Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien down at the blogosphere’s G+ Grill. “No one should ever be surprised at seeing Linux used for important scientific work; it has become the standard.”

Indeed, “it is always good to be reminded that there are some industries (HPC) that Linux completely dominates,” agreed consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack.

‘Go, GNU/Linux!’

And again: “When you have work to do, there’s no better OS than GNU/Linux,” concurred blogger Robert Pogson. “It has no other purpose than to manage your resources.

“That other OS, on the other hand, is out to get you to buy yet another license,” Pogson asserted.

Then, too, there’s the fact that “the data-analysis needed at CERN for the Higgs boson is immense,” he pointed out. “No scientist at a time like this wants an OS that wants to re-re-reboot, slow down, welcome malware or phone home.”

In short, “the fact that that other OS charges more to do less makes the choice of OS for number-crunching easy,” Pogson concluded. “Go, GNU/Linux!”

‘This Shouldn’t Surprise Anyone’

Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, took a similar view.

“Linux has been the de facto choice for supercomputer clusters for a while, so this shouldn’t surprise anyone,” Travers noted.

“What has surprised me, though, has been CERN’s role in the Linux community,” Travers added. “They haven’t been merely a major Linux user in their supercomputers but have played a major role in bringing together scientific technologies and know-how regarding Linux in their Scientific Linux project, which acts as a clone and extension of Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

“This goes *way* beyond the normal high performance computing usage of Linux,” Travers concluded. “CERN is in the forefront of bringing Linux to the scientific community.”

‘A Tool That Was Made for the Job’

Last but not least, Slashdot blogger hairyfeet was similarly unsurprised.

“I never understood why using a tool that was MADE for a job is supposed to be a big deal,” hairyfeet told Linux Girl.

“It’s really very simple,” hairyfeet explained. “Linux is good at embedded OSes and clustering (like I’m sure CERN uses extensively) while Windows is good at desktops, laptops, and SMB internal servers, while Apple is good with consumer devices like smartphones and tablets.

“To quibble over this is like arguing a moped can replace a truck, or a sports car can replace a boat,” he added.

‘CERN Uses Best Tool, News at 11’

“Despite the FUD and hyperbole on BOTH sides, Linux really doesn’t have much overlap with MSFT,” hairyfeet suggested. “Windows just isn’t good at what Linux is good at, such as small footprint embedded OSes like in every router, printer, etc., and making huge clusters with no GUI and almost no overhead that can crunch massive amounts of data, which is EXACTLY what they had to do to find the Higgs Boson.”

Last week’s story, then, “might as well have said, ‘CERN uses best tool for a specialized task, news at 11,” hairyfeet concluded.

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.


  • You (and others) have written this:

    "I want to mention how Linux (specifically, Scientific Linux and Ubuntu) had a vital role in the discovery of the new boson at CERN," reads a quote by an unnamed physicist at CERN in the Ubuntu Vibes article."

    Yet I’m just wondering where this information regarding Ubuntu’s involvement at CERN comes from. Are you just quoting someone from reddit without confirmation?

    The Linux @ CERN site shows no Ubuntu involvement at all here:

    Further, another German blogger points out OS use at CERN in his blog and Ubuntu is nowhere to be found (blog in German — Google Translate speaks excellent German):

    So did Ubuntu really have anything to do with it? If not, why aren’t responsible representatives from either Canonical, Ubuntu or the Ubuntu community making this correction?

    • I seriously SERIOUSLY doubt it had ANYTHING to do with Ubuntu. I help out an engineer at the local college who works on a lot of NASA projects and I can tell you that for number crunching? they are NOT using Ubuntu, they are using Scientific Linux. SL has pretty much become the standard OS for scientific work, its stable, well supported, has a ton of other colleges using it and thus contributing code to projects that are used by many of the schools, in other words it is tailor made for the job guys like CERN do.

      Ubuntu is a home OS that is so bleeding edge the CDs ought to have stigmata which is NOT what you want when you are doing actual work, its no different than how you don’t find production servers running bleeding edge distros, you don’t do someone else’s beta testing with YOUR work.

      So I seriously doubt CERN is using Ubuntu for anything of note, its just not built for the job they are doing and why would they go to the trouble of tweaking so it COULD be decent in that job when Scientific Linux is also free and built by scientists for scientists?

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