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Tuesday, 30 September 2008 13:28

Australian Synchrotron, Part 1 - IT and controls (iTWire podcast)

Richard Farnsworth, head of IT and controls at the Australian Synchrotron, in a series of podcasts for iTWire, gives fascinating insights into the control engineering and information technology used to operate this world-class particle accelerator.

The Australian Synchrotron is sited at Clayton near Monash University, some 20 Km southeast of central Melbourne.

Richard Farnsworth, head of IT and controls at the Synchrotron.

It's not quite as massive as the Large Hadron Collider, but it was finished six months early, under budget, and ever since then has had an exceptionally high scheduled uptime. So let's claim, as we modest Aussies are wont to do, that it a case "not of what you've got, but what you do with what you've got!" (Or, "LHC, eat your heart out.")

The synchrotron is already very busy, conducting pure and applied research into both hard and soft (biological) matter, in many field such as imaging and medical therapy, powder and protein X-ray diffraction, infrared and X-ray absorption spectroscopy, protein crystallography, and lots more. You might get some idea of this by looking at this list of beamlines.

Richard Farnsworth (pictured), head of IT and controls at the Australian Synchrotron, showed me over this facility, which is about the size of a covered sportsground. We started at the control room, moved on to the server room, then went on a tour of the two rings to see just what all these computers were monitoring and controlling.

The emphasis of this iTWire podcast series is not on synchrotron science per se but on the challenges, achievements and plans related to particle accelerator control engineering and IT at this Australian facility..

This covers many quite diverse matters, such as: closely controlling the ring temperature, safety procedures and controls, hardware selection, operating systems and software development (a few surprises here), IT staffing, archiving and management of the huge amounts of data arising from beamline experiments.

Of course, reference will be made throughout the podcast recordings to synchrotron features and science. These won't be explained in the articles, so if you'd like to find out more about them please visit the Australian Synchrotron web site where you'll find plenty of background information and images.

Note that Australian Synchrotron Open Day 2008 is coming up on Sunday 26 October, 10 AM to 4 PM. Don't miss out. Entry is free but bookings are essential.

A tad more weighty is the Australian Synchrotron User Meeting & the Asia Oceania Forum 2008 -- or A-O Week -- being held in Melbourne from 1-5 December.


This is part 1 of a series of podcast segments, each episode having a summary of the that  podcast's content. We start off meeting Richard Farnsworth and then visiting the control room.

iTWire: How close to the start of the synchrotron project were you involved, as an engineer?

Richard Farnsworth: I was the first practising engineer on. I was the most senior local engineer brought into the project, the others were all brought in from overseas.

ITWire: What were you doing it before that?

Richard Farnsworth: I was doing the water control system for Melbourne, which was a very complicated system of pipes and controls across a wide distributed network.

I worked on the railways signalling system for metropolitan railways. I've done plant control systems in gas and power stations as well. ... That type of  big enterprise instrumentation and control, that's my specialty field and that is what was needed on the synchrotron.

Please note that the above introductory segment of the interview with Richard was recorded with high ambient sound levels, as were some later segments. It needed some "forceful treatment" to reduce extraneous noise, therefore despite its short duration it is being made available as a separate audio file. You can download it from here (MP3 format, size 411 KB, duration 60 seconds).

We first visited the control room. Here, Richard described the dual-headed Linux systems used for the monitoring and control of the synchrotron, which among other things has over 300 beam-manipulating electromagnets needing exceedingly fine control.

There are screens for many things, such as logging, alarms, and a publicly-viewable Facility Status Monitor continually-updated display. (Notice that the URL for this seems to be and not the URL that Richard quotes in the interview, but this might be only a temporary URL redirection problem.)

One quite notable figure that Richard mentions in this segment is the incredible reliability of the Australian Synchrotron, 99.9 percent of scheduled operating time.

In the control room, they use stock off-the-shelf (but high end) systems wherever possible. And development/deployment goes through a three-stage process, of which more in a subsequent podcast segment.

Finally, Richard explains that they don't use virtualization much, except for the so-called virtual beamline which enables remote experimenters to see much the same as if they were on-site.

You can download the Australian Synchrotron control room audio segment from here (MP3 format, size 2.6 MB, duration 5:32).

More to follow over the coming week or two, so watch this space!

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Tony Austin

Worked at IBM from 1970, for a quarter century, then founded Asia/Pacific Computer Services to provide IT consulting and software development services (closed company at end of 2013). These says am still involved with IT as an observer and commentator, as well as attempting to understand cosmology, quantum mechanics and whatever else will keep my mind active and fend off deterioration of my grey matter.

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