CERN Computing Colloquium

Apprenticeship - 60 years of computing experience (part 1)

by Ben Segal

503/1-001 - Council Chamber (CERN)

503/1-001 - Council Chamber


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Using my own life as a timeline, I will illustrate some of the immense changes that have marked 60 years of computing progress between 1958 and 2018. I will include anecdotes as well as technical details. Life is often as interesting and surprising as technology: accidents and chance encounters strongly affect both. Most of my story takes place at CERN, but as major changes of style and personal attitudes have occurred here, some of the background may seem surprising to younger listeners.

There will be two talks, split between the first and second 30 year periods. The first period covers some really “ancient” computing environments, while the second shows the emergence of modern techniques and will seem relatively familiar.

Because it is a personal narrative I need to add that I was always part of various teams, sharing most of the work discussed, and strongly dependent on managers and work environments which changed over time. Overall I consider my career as a continual apprenticeship, beginning from zero but, thanks to mentors and a good deal of chance, becoming able to contribute to a wide variety of projects at CERN and elsewhere.

Outline: First job at UKAEA Risley / To USA for work and study / To CERN by chance / On sabbatical in Palo Alto / Back at CERN for STELLA etc. / Distributed computing and TCP/IP take off at CERN

About the speaker

Ben Segal graduated in Physics and Mathematics in 1958 from Imperial College London, then worked for 7 years on nuclear reactor development, first for the UK Atomic Energy Authority and later in the USA. In 1971 he completed a Ph.D. in Engineering at Stanford University.

Ben joined CERN's Data Handling Division in 1971 and worked in the field of computer communications. An early project was "STELLA" – an experiment that linked CERN via satellite connections with five other European research laboratories. He also worked on networking heterogeneous computer systems at CERN, including the gatewaying of workstations and UNIX systems to each other and to the CERN mainframes (IBM, Cray and DEC).

From 1985 to 1989, as CERN's first official "TCP/IP Co-ordinator", Ben was responsible for coordinating the introduction of the Internet protocols within CERN. For this work, he was inducted to the ISOC Internet Hall of Fame in 2014.

He taught TCP/IP, Unix and distributed computing from 1986 to 2002 in many countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America.

From 1990, he was a member of the small team which developed the “SHIFT” system, changing CERN’s computing systems from central mainframes to distributed Unix clusters - and today many tens of thousands of Linux nodes forming the Worldwide LHC Grid. From 2000 he managed part of the European Data Grid project. Since retiring from CERN in 2002 he has been an Honorary CERN member. He has worked primarily on Volunteer Computing, co-founding and helping to develop the LHC@home BOINC project from 2004 until today.