Mining for information

Stanford-based CIO studies how to retrieve research data

MENLO PARK, Calif. — As with many great ideas, some of the earliest thinking that led to the Huge Memory System — a way to access vast amounts of data — took place in the shower. In this case, the shower was located in Silicon Valley and belonged to Richard Mount, a scientist educated at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.

Thinking outside the box is typical for Mount. For much of his career, he has been grappling with the problem of retrieving large volumes of data once they have been stored. One day, he hit pay dirt.

Born in the United Kingdom, Mount left Europe and joined the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) here in 1997. He is director of computing services — also known as chief information officer — and assistant director of the center's research division at the facility, which is operated by Stanford University for the Energy Department.

Mount and other SLAC officials have proposed building a national facility this year that would store 30 terabytes of data. Although the idea has been well received, he said, DOE officials have made no promises and offered no money to support the proposal.

The center, which was home to the first U.S. Web site in 1991, supports research in high-energy physics and develops accelerators and related technologies for scientific use. As data-storage innovators 15 years ago, SLAC managers transferred data from magnetic tapes to discs. Mount said his invention, the Huge Memory System, is another step in the evolution of data storage. By shifting from a disc-based system to a memory-based one, scientists can analyze volumes of data in record time, he said.

The difficulty of accessing data is a problem that will only worsen as people create more of it, he added.

Researchers won't have to reserve time to use the Huge Memory System as they do to use supercomputers, Mount said. Mount's memory system would exclusively hold SLAC data and would serve as a demonstration system to entice others to purchase their own.

He came up with the idea while working as a CIO, or rather as two CIOs. He is primarily responsible for scientific computing, but he also has the duties of a traditional CIO. SLAC is part of the High Energy Physics Division at DOE's Office of Science. The center has 1,300 employees and a budget of about $250 million, which comes out of an annual Energy and Water Appropriations bill from Congress.

SLAC's academic ethos occasionally counters expectations in the commercial and government worlds.

One challenge for Mount has been to make sure that SLAC's high-energy physics projects, which tend to be 20-year endeavors, do not outlast their commercial partners. Silicon Valley start-up companies typically fold within 20 years. But so far, at least, Mount has rarely been left holding a contract from a company that has gone out of business.

He said the SLAC has tripled its computer security during the past five years. He added that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks did not significantly change the way the center operates. "We have never done any classified research, and the idea of bad guys building bombs is far-fetched," Mount said, referring to possible misuse of SLAC's research.

The facility's approach is to avoid prescriptive, rule-based security solutions. "We have a security team of three extremely bright people," Mount said. Each security decision is "fully intellectually justified, so that scientists and the security team have aligned goals."

Bob Cowles, a computer security officer at SLAC, described Mount as "the most supportive manager I have ever had in my 30 years in the industry." Cowles said Mount "has an incredible memory for things that you tell him, and he has never failed to back me up."

Cowles said Mount must occasionally pass on unpopular information, such as when he informed employees that they would have to begin running Microsoft Windows XP on their computers. The decision meant that managers would have to find a way to pay for new computers.

But Mount can deliver bad news without frustrating employees, Cowles said. "He can say those same things in front of a bunch of users, and they say, 'Wonderful. OK.'"

Sarita Chourey is a California-based freelance writer.

The Richard Mount file

Title: Director of computing services, which is equivalent to chief information officer, at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and assistant director of the laboratory's research division.

Born: 1947 in Huddersfield, United Kingdom.

Education: Mount earned a bachelor's degree in physics from Oxford University in 1970 and a doctorate in high-energy physics from Cambridge University in 1975.

Professional history: In 1978, he became a research officer at Oxford. From 1982-1988, he worked for the California Institute of Technology as a researcher.

Mount moved up to senior research associate at the institute and held the position for almost 10 years while contributing at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, the world's largest particle physics laboratory.

Last book read: "The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright" by Tom Crouch.

Last movie seen: "Return of the King."

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