2 more degrees and it's lights out: Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix's toasty mobile bit barn

Techies at the ready with buckets

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There's something reassuring about the techies that support a championship-winning Formula 1 team resorting to basic cooling methods to prevent their mobile data centre from melting.

Matt Harris, head of IT at Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Ltd, gave a few insights into his life at the business, which recently picked up its sixth title with Lewis Hamilton at the wheel.

"We have services at the track; we have a mini data centre," he told an audience at HPE's Discover event in Munich, Germany, last month. "Most people would think I am mad, that we take a data centre that supports a hundred or so users as domain controllers, SQL servers, file servers, Wi-Fi, Ethernet gigabit to all clients, around 200 devices, 100 or so virtualized servers. We take that to every event. We take about 36 hours to put it together, we run for five days, and we expect it to be absolutely perfect."

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The bit barn in a box takes six hours to pack away before it is shipped to another country: there are 21 F1 races in each season dotted around the globe so this is, Harris jokes, similar to a "Benny Hill sketch" – he is referring to the speed of the clearance rather than something else.

"For us, we have a harsh environment from an IT perspective, so we have no air conditioning, we work on the worst ambient temperature... What happens if air conditioning fails and I've relied on air conditioning to be the thing to keep the IT running? So we work on ambient temperature with air flowing being the thing to cool the equipment."

Things almost came unstuck for the Mercedes team during the heatwave in Europe last summer, specifically at the race in Germany.

"We came here and had 48˚C degree ambient air temperature, most IT equipment at 50˚C: good night," he said. Like all data centre admins know, Harris relied on some quick calculations to keep things ticking over.

"So we were engineering – I say engineering in the loosest sense of the word – to put cool air in front of our racks. We were putting dry ice into water containers in front of fans, far enough away from the kit to try and drop the temperature in front of the kit," said Harris.

Luckily, the temperature dropped by 2°C, which was handy because Mercedes went through the qualifying round and the system's heat intensified in the data centre, which could have been a disaster.

Being a mobile tech support outfit has other challenges: the team transfers around 3.5TB "backwards and forwards" and while that is "not a huge amount of data", there are limitations put on the team, Harris said.

"I go to 21 countries for approximately five days. Those five days I only have 70MB per second of bandwidth to transfer data backwards and forwards because the cost is astronomical. The reason being, I go to three countries (I won't name them), but they are 80 per cent of my mobile comms bill, and also my MPLS bill for the year. I can't afford to bring all the data back all the time. I bring back what I have to and then I do all the other compute at the edge."

Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix, like other racing teams, is limited by the sport's rules on the number of personnel it can take on the F1 circuit each week, with 60 people allowed, mostly comprised of mechanics and race engineers. Harris said he has a small number of techies that travel with the team during the season.

So that means that next time Harris and co need to find a solution to cool down their overheating data centre, the dry ice bucket better work again, as giant hand fans operated by tens of techies is out of the question. ®


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