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Computing in the fast lane

Computing in the fast lane

Racing sensation Lewis Hamilton of England won the recently concluded Grand Prix duCanada in Montreal. The 22-year-old phenomenon had the poll-position to start the race and was faster than the runner up Nick Heidfeld by 4.3 seconds.

Coming in third that day was Alexandre Wurz of the Williams F1 team. He completed the 70 lap race just 5.3 seconds slower than Hamilton. An argument can be made that Wurz, who has been called the most technically astute Formula 1 driver today, was faster than any racer because he started the race 19 cars back of Hamilton. Only three other racers were behind Wurz at the start of the Grand Prix that day.

Having a technically astute driver such as Wurz can be an advantage given the amount of data a team such as Williams captures, stores and reviews.

Williams' yearly IT budget is between £2 million and £3 million (US$4.2 million to US$6.3 million) and every cent is spent on winning races.

At the head of this organization is Alex Burns, the COO. He has been running the team's business for five years.

Burns is also the de facto CIO of Williams with an IT staff of 15. Williams is a complicated mid-size business with more than 500 employees on a 40 hectare technology campus located in Oxfordshire, U.K. Burns said instead of focusing on profit the company's main goal is to be faster on the track than any other of the nine teams on the Formula 1 campaign this year.

Burns described the importance of computing to his operation in one word: "Massive!"

"To us on one level we are a large medium-size business and we are international and we travel. The pace of our business is very fast. The decision making is quick and people need to be in touch quickly, which pressures us to be mobile. On top of that, we are also an extreme prototyping and engineering business. We are on the bleeding edge with our technology," Burns said.

Once a car is designed and built it goes through a lot of calculations and simulation work in a wind-tunnel. Then it is shipped to many places around the world. The car is not only parked inside a garage it is also connected to two server racks near at the back end of the space where data is collected and sent back to the U.K. campus.

"This is the core of what we do," Burns said.

Williams is also a team with a storied past. Started in 1977 by Sir Frank Williams and Patrick Head, the F1 team has won 16 Formula 1 championships, the last of which was captured by Canadian Jacques Villeneuve in 1997. Williams is among the four best known brands in Formula 1 along with Ferrari, McLaren, and Monaco.

But, Williams is also a team in transition. It is no longer a factory team since BMW left. This has affected its IT budget, but it hasn't changed the way its cars and drivers have performed on the track, Burns said.

Williams now uses Toyota engines and Burns calls the switch: "different."

"We have a remote provider of engines. We have engineers and support from Toyota at the circuit similar to what we had with BMW. So it is not a massive change," he added.

Despite not being a factory team on the F1 circuit, Williams main technology pain points deal with meeting people's expectations rather than the scope of its IT operation.

According to Burns, the staff always wants more.

"They want to do more computing and faster computing and there liability of the system, which is already high, is an ongoing march for speed," he said.

Williams data collection is on a steep growth curve. At the Grand Prix du Canada, for example, over three days the cars will generate 8 TB of data, which will be stored at the garage and sent over to the U.K. campus.

Approximately eight technicians are working inside the garage in intense heat since the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is one of the smallest garage set ups in F1. The server boxes are specially made by Lenovo running Windows XP with an Oracle database. Most of the data is telemetry data, but there are operations for chassis and fuel.

Each driver and car has one race engineer and four mechanics, with one of those being a head mechanic. The garage set up has a notebook in front of the car which monitors the parameters of the engine and can retrieve data while the car is at 19,000 RPMs.

Williams usually designs its own programs because of the specific nature of the sport. Burns did say that from time to time the team does employ other solution providers.

The real time information from the car is downloaded via cable called the umbilical cord, which dangles from the roof of the garage and is plugged into the car.

After each qualifying session drivers such as Wurz and his teammate Nico Rosberg spend two hours pouring over data with engineers behind the garage so that the driver can bring his real world track insight to the data collected, said Sam Michael, the technical director at Williams.

"There is a fine line between the engine, the car and the factory and all of them are checking the data to make the car go faster and be more reliable. Nothing slows us down from an IT standpoint," Michael said.

He added that today's F1 drivers need to be technically aware for controlling the car. In the past, a driver such as Heinz Harold Frentzen, a former driver with Williams, while racing at 330 KPH looked on his own to check tires.

Today, drivers need to be aware of traction control, brake systems, and onboard mapping.

There is a maximum of 400 sensors on a race car. These sensors capture the data for Williams engineers.

This creates an archiving challenge for the team and its storage mandate is in the high terabytes. "Storage is something always being asked for. It always crosses my desk for one or three more terabytes and the speed of that data from a year ago has to be improved. They need it now, not in hours and on occasion they are big data files from the U.K. to the circuit," Burns said.

Williams has two wind tunnels on its U.K. campus. These wind tunnels are mission critical equipment and IT is at its core. These wind tunnel systems measure the air dynamics of the car. "The only way we can improve the speed of the car is by air dynamics," Burns said.

Making matters even more challenging is that courses such as the one in Montreal are vastly different than others. For example, Monaco, the race just before Montreal, has a circuit with tighter corners and is a slower street course with lots of drags, while Montreal is long and straight with minimal drag.

"We have parts made specifically for Monaco as opposed to Montreal and that is how important the wind tunnels are to the development of these cars. We lean heavily on our IT partners such as Lenovo," Burns said.

During the off season, Williams devotes its time to the development of new cars and parts. They use an ERP and CAD systems and a product lifecycle management program to manage and configure cars. The rate of production is fast paced. During this past winter Burns said Williams produced 4,000 new parts compared to other businesses with 520 people they would do much less, Burns said.

The wind tunnel is a bit of a black box. You get data but it does not tell the IT staff what to do next, according to Michael.

A system called Computation Fueled Dynamics or CFD is used along with CAD software for stress analysis in the wind tunnel.

"It is a 12 month process from concept to track. The chassis is done in nine months. About 15 years ago it was a two-to-three month process, but it was not refined," he said. By investing in Lenovo hardware for the CFD system it has enabled Williams to improve by a multiple of three.

Another challenge is basically replicating the entire IT infrastructure every two weeks for F1 races around the world.

Burns calls this the company's toughest IT challenge. The Lenovo equipment has to be robust, he said. The eight racks of workstations in the garage along with one for each car and engines plus spares needs to be aligned wirelessly to those computers along the pit wall.

That is just the racing part. There are also various people with laptops in the motor home and they too all have to be wireless and connected to the outside world through another partner AT&T.

Lenovo supplies the PC infrastructure to the wind tunnel and at track side. The one thing Burns likes about Lenovo equipment is that it is rugged. "Lenovo (notebooks) can survive after being dropped on to a hard floor. Race engineers are hard folks and expect it to run all the time," he said.

Beyond racing, Williams is a mid-size business with sales, marketing and other branches. Burns said that the company's office culture is similar to its track culture. It is all about speed. The only difference Burns added is instead of the finishing line it's more about increasing Williams' speed to market. "It is all about partners and sponsorship and servicing those partners so they get the best value for its sponsorship," he said.

Williams is a different company than others who make a product and sell it with some margin attached. The business end of Williams is about attracting sponsorships and investing their money to do well on the race track.

"This business is about speed as opposed to time to market. We do things as fast as we can from concept to track and what normal businesses do in a month we do in a week. That is why we need the technical infrastructure and availability that can be shared quickly to keep everyone moving along."

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