Big data analytics is a hot topic in IT departments across the globe, with organisations realising it is an important way to speed up business processes and improve productivity.
However, few have taken it as far as Lotus F1, which views the technology as a key factor in racing success.
V3 spoke to Lotus F1's converged infrastructure specialist, Anthony Smith (pictured), to see how the team is using the technology and get an idea of its future plans.
Simplifying big data
Big data is nothing new to the Lotus F1 team, which has been using it to improve performance for many years.
However, it's only recently after a move to EMC's V-Blocks server architecture that the team been able fully to use big data in a simple and intuitive way.
"We've had the V-blocks around 18 months now. We were using a set of different hardware from various vendors before. This has been one of the big changes for us," Smith said.
"We have one provider and one system that we know works together. We keep it as simple as possible so we have one company to contact if something goes wrong."
Lotus F1 is using a two-pronged strategy that integrates the EMC technology into the team's race and factory environments.
"We've got two V-blocks, one at the factory which looks after our requirements there and a second that goes to every race event," he said.
"We also have a spare that we used to use at show car events, which is pretty useful as it lets us try things out.
"So we have a complete separate environment we can use when testing changes that also acts as our disaster recovery."
Smith explained that the tools have helped EMC collect vast amounts of data from the cars to make race winning changes and adjustments to the team's factory and processes.
"All the time the car runs we're gathering data from it. It's constantly streaming, even when it's just in the garage. It's producing around 60GB of data per weekend," he said.
"Then we're using that to analyse and refine the performance, and find improvements. We're working to improve our competitiveness through the data.
"We're looking at how we can improve race to race, doing simulations so we know how to set up the car better."
The EMC technology is aided by a number of custom tools Lotus F1 has created to fit with racing technology standards.
"We have our own in-house tools that we use for testing that take the data from the car. We also have some stock tools that all the Formula One teams use," he explained.
"We're limited to a standard engine control unit on the car, and there's a set of software packages that come with that. These are things all the teams use, but we take those and combine them with our in-house tools.
"For simulation we also use a combination of standard tools and custom tools that lets us do any mathematical modelling we want to throw at it."
Smith said that better analytics are essential in today's racing environment owing to new limitations on the amount of real-world tests the team can do.
"We're not allowed to test during the year. We do three tests at the beginning of the year - that's three weeks of testing - and then during the year we have four days in total throughout the year that we can test the car that isn't a race weekend," he said.
"This is why the simulation and the data analysis is so important because we can't just decide to test it on the circuit. There are so many possibilities for the car and we've got to turn up at the circuit and pretty much know exactly how it's going to be and what's going to happen."
He added that the limited resources the IT team can bring to each race is another challenge.
"The whole company is 470 people. That's everybody ranging from design, manufacturing, the race team to administration. We take about 60 people to each race. We're also limited, again to reduce costs, as you can only have 40 people with a pass that can get into the garage to work on the car," he said.
"So another challenge is the fact that we can only take one IT person into the race garage. This means our systems have got to be bulletproof. It's a stressful job."
The small team size is particularly challenging as the nature of racing means that those on the ground have to create a bespoke IT environment from scratch each time.
"We're connected back to the UK and have support, but there are certain jobs where you need to be at the track. You need to build an environment for every race. Every week we're in a different country and have to build everything up from scratch," he said.
"[For example] in Europe we'll fly out for a race on Tuesday and by Wednesday morning they'll have to be setting up for the race, testing on Friday, qualifying on Saturday, racing on Sunday and by half past nine the same day packed up and on their way home. It doesn't stop. There are 20 races every year in 20 different countries."
Smith said that geography and climate present another challenge for the F1 team when they have to fly to races in other parts of the world.
"One time in Bahrain it was 37 degrees by the racks. You don't want to run a data centre at 37 degrees. It's different in Europe. We have trucks where the racks live in an air conditioned environment. But we can't do that for flyaways," he said.
Smith listed security and data theft as another top concern for the Lotus IT team. "I was at a conference a couple of months ago and people were asking: ‘Don't you share your data, put it out to the world so people can help you find improvements, like NASA?'," he said.
"Of course we can't do that, it'd be crazy. We're extremely concerned about security. We're high profile and we have competitors who, if they can find a way to beat us, will not turn it down."
The converged future
Looking to the future Smith said that Lotus plans to continue its current strategy and move towards a hyper converged infrastructure.
"We're looking at whatever we can get our hands on. We've seen the whole virtualisation hybrid cloud infrastructure develop over the last few years and that's helped us massively," he said.
"When I started we had individual servers, then we moved to the first generation of virtualisation and now we've moved to a proper converged infrastructure.
"We're looking towards boosting our resilience. Looking at X-Racks VSpex Blue, hyper converged, the next step on.
"If we can get more performance for less size, weight and power on the track that's another advantage for us."
VSpex Blue was unveiled by EMC in February. The technology is based on VMware's EVO:RAIL platform, but with additional EMC capabilities, and lets companies provision virtual machines in just 15 minutes.
Lotus F1 is one of many car companies using big data technologies. Mercedes used SAP's HANA in-memory database platform to help develop its latest AMG GT sports car.
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