At a Formula 1TM grand prix, the Caterham F1 Team has 60 team personnel performing a variety of tricky tasks. There are analysts studying gigabytes of data coming from the car as it goes round the track and engineers poring over that data, gaining insight from it. Plus, there’s an additional team of people back at Caterham’s U.K. factory helping to sift through that data as it’s beamed back to the track in near-real time from wherever the race is being held around the world.
None of it would be possible without the incredible box that operates as the team’s nerve center at races: a seemingly unassuming data processing unit barely five feet tall known as the “half rack.” And its compact size has blazed a technological trail up and down the grid in Formula 1TM.
The sheer amount of data going through this box, and the number of people relying on it to work flawlessly should not be underestimated. Antony Smith, Caterham’s senior IT support engineer and the man responsible for the team’s entire IT infrastructure during Grand Prix weekends, gives us a look at what it does and why its miniature size is so important.
“The Dell half rack monitors all the data (radio and intercom traffic) going back to the U.K.,” Smith says. “It’s very important to get the data back quickly, so that all of the people back at the factory in the UK can talk to the people at the track as if they were here. The system is fully integrated with everything there — email, messaging, telephones and voicemail. We’ve got links back to the U.K. all the time.”
“People back at the U.K. factory can log onto and use the half-rack with the same amount of control as if that person was sitting in one of our trackside offices,” Smith says. “The virtualization and condensing of everything into three PowerEdge servers is so brilliant, because people can use them remotely and we don’t have a whole stack of machines for people to use in the UK.”
“We’ve got the SonicWall WAN accelerator, which does all the traffic shaping, bandwidth control and firewalling to stop the servers from being attacked. There’s two of those trackside,” Smith says. They’re situated away from each other. In case anything goes wrong, Caterham has a Disaster Recovery System in one of them.
“There’s an additional firewall in the UK which sees if there’s data that’s been sent back before,” he says. “The idea is that they’re all mirrored, so if one fails, the other one will just take over automatically.”
“I suppose one of the reasons we call this the half-rack is that it’s about half the size of the racks other teams might be using; some might have a kit that’s up to five times the size of this,” Smith says. “You have to remember that the team has to transport equipment to races around the world. So having less equipment saves money. We’ve been able to condense our servers down, too. We went from 8U (8 rack spaces of equipment) to 3U (3 rack spaces of equipment). They’re smaller, lighter and cheaper to transport. It all helps.”
“Racetracks are certainly not clean, sterile environments — they have lots of sand and dust, which finds its way into the half-rack,” Smith says. “I regularly have to take it apart and clean it. It’s essential in making sure that it will still work properly for the next race.”
A robust piece of computing equipment that can do anything and never seems to go wrong — what’s not to love? “Well, in terms of the storage and the servers we’ve had so few problems; the whole virtual environment has been fantastic. Considering the gains it’s given us, like the size, weight and performance, it’s made a huge impact,” Smith says.
It’s an impact that can now be seen up and down the grid. In such a competitive sport, it seems, no team’s advantage stays secret for long.
Want more? Stay up to date on the latest news and events about the Dell/Caterham F1 Team partnership. Follow us on twitter @dellinsidetrack, and read the other parts of the series:
Dell and the Caterham F1 team provide an inside look into the powerful enterprise and trackside infrastructure that lays the foundation for racing success.
- 1Caterham F1 Team revs up, with Dell IT power
- 2Antony Smith: Senior IT engineer for Caterham F1
- 3After fire, Caterham F1 team makes quick recovery
- 4The man behind the technology of Caterham F1 team
- 5A ‘half rack’ is critical to racing success
- 6The HPC that does not get a vacation
- 7Weight of an F1 team sits on one man’s shoulders