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November 26, 2015updated 28 Mar 2017 4:22pm

Formula 1, Truly Mobile Big Data

Two trends in enterprise technology – increasing use of big data and ease of mobility are not usually talked about at the same time

By John Oates

So would you fancy a job which requires you to move your data centre every two weeks? Not just to a new provider but to a draughty garage in a different country. You’ll be shifting tonnes of IT equipment by lorry or plane – depending on how far the next venue is.

It might be to a stiflingly hot garage in Brazil or Bahrain where temperatures will be well into the 30’s. Or it might be at Silverstone in damp old Blighty.

Servers, storage systems, display walls, laptops and tablets all have to work perfectly in all conditions.

Fancy a job where even the smallest problem will put lives at risk and be broadcast live to millions of people?

You’ve probably guessed by now we’re talking about Formula 1. The season ends shortly, with more of a whimper than a bang we suspect.

But for the technology guys working for the teams there is no let up in the pressure. A few days off after the last race before continuing development of next year’s car.

People criticise Formula 1 for being too dominated by technology. But these people don’t really think about the technology involved.

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The business world is just starting to hear about the ‘internet of things’ – but F1 cars have run for years with hundreds of pieces of monitoring kit on-board.

Mark Gallagher, MD of CMS Motor Sport and 30 year Formula One veteran, recently told CBR: “There is so much about Big Data, IoT, and other things that we can do with in this new world. It is pretty extraordinary what you can do when using this technology.”

These feed back to complex monitoring and modelling software in real-time during practise sessions. It is one of the few situations where thousandths of seconds really do count.

At track-side teams run what is effectively a mobile data centre. Backbone systems are typically built on racks of easily replaceable blade servers in case of failure – virtualisation has made life much easier. There is usually at least one identical set-up back at base so if any one part fails it can be quickly replaced.

Team numbers are restricted so they also need to maintain some fat pipes to get massive amounts of data back to headquarters.

It is here that a larger team runs more complex scenarios, typically on a high performance computing cluster, based on data from practise sessions and the race itself.

All this data is fed into complex modelling programmes so tiny changes to cars can be modelled. The computers provide more than advice on tyre pressures – modelling provides teams with detailed strategy as well.

Formula 1 is often seen as a test bed for car technology, but it also provides a look at the future of technology in the wider business world.

One of the lessons for the rest of us is that there is no longer a development phase followed by a deployment stage.

Cars are constantly being tweaked as a result of data from the last race and practise sessions.

Increasingly companies don’t get to develop then deploy either. Products like mobile applications and websites go through a process of constant change.

You don’t get to stop changing but have to continually respond to changes in demand from your customers and react to your competitors.

Just as software development is less likely to be dominated by big releases and more likely to follow continual development – small, incremental changes rather than big bang changes so hardware is going the same way.

Today’s converged systems work in a similar way to create plug and play data centres which allow relatively easy changes and upgrades. Infrastructure can be changed incrementally rather than during big upgrades which require big periods of downtime.

So whatever you think of the thrills, or lack of them, of watching the racing, Formula 1 can give us a glimpse of the future. You might not be driving a car like Lewis Hamilton’s in the next few years but there’s a good chance that your business will be relying on technology which looks at least a little like that which made Mercedes AMG Petronas this year’s top team.

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