F1 team uses cloud computing for Grand Prix success

Williams Formula 1 team embraces cloud computing to transmit telemetry data, vital to quick decision making.


As Nico Hulkenberg, the 22-year-old up-and-coming Formula 1 driving star, approaches the final chicane of the Circuit Gilles Villenueve during the Canadian Grand Prix he will already know from telemetry data hosted in the cloud to slow down 10 metres before the turn or risk smacking into the infamous wall of champions that has taken out racing superstars such as Fernando Alonzo and Michael Schumacher.

Hulkenberg, who races for iconic Williams F1, got off to a great start at the recently concluded Canadian Grand Prix. He started the race 12th on the grid, but suddenly found himself in 8th position.

In the past Williams F1 Racing, which also features veteran driver Rubens Barrichello, based its technology purchasing decisions on speed - speed to market and speed on the track. "We strive for gaining that tenth of second that it takes to win," said Alex Burns, CEO of Williams F1, based in Oxfordshire, UK.

But things have changed at Williams F1 and the long-time racing power is embracing the new capabilities of cloud computing.

Burns said that the team is looking to strike a balance between speed and security with its technology solutions.

Williams F1 has partnered with AT&T Global Services for its Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) offering.

"The IT strategy used to be about speed and the speed of decision making on testing and accessing the results. Security is equally important and we are working in a competitive and high profile environment and it's not unheard of that teams spy on each other. We have to be aware that we are a target or Formula 1 is a target and our communication, for no other reason, must not disrupt the event. We have a lot of employees who travel and use laptops, people lodging remotely who need to address the Internet with normal work activity. We have to be certain to make sure nothing goes through the system that can damage the network. And, we want to push all that onto the AT&T cloud," Burns said.

Its Oxfordshire headquarters contains a fully managed enhanced virtual private network which enables the team engineers, mechanics, car designers and drivers to run the business. That business is building the fastest cars in the world. The IaaS network also gives Williams F1 personnel the same network on the road for the 19 Grand Prix races that are part of the Formula 1 season.

Williams, which is essentially a small business, must move its operation every two weeks for nine months of the year. About 20 per cent of the company is constantly on the road and they require connecting to the AT&T VPN. Making it even more challenging on the IT resources is the increase in mobile devices.

According to Burns, this presents a security risk. But Burns freely admits while Williams F1 is one of the more tech-savvy race teams it knows very little about security. "What our IT department focuses on is helping others build fast cars," Burns said. About 200 of the 500 employees at Williams F1 work to develop the cars. An additional 100 build the cars. "You simply can't virtualise a mechanic, so we rely on AT&T's network to transmit data about which 10 per cent is generated on the car," Burns said.

In last Sunday's race, Williams F1 decided to use hard tires on Hulkenberg's No. 10 car. The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is notorious for eating up brakes. This decision gave Huklenberg an advantage over other racers who went with soft tires.

The car creates large data files from several hundred sensors and they need to be securely transferred back to Williams F1 HQ and to be accessed by the team members on the ground.

Aisha Umar, vice-president of sales for AT&T Global Services Canada, said that challenges facing Williams F1 is not that different than another business that needs access of service and hosting. The team, while at the Grand Prix Du Canada in Montreal will need to connect to databases and customize software programs developed in-house that's in Oxfordshire through the cloud, she said.

Umar added that AT&T Canada is in the midst of partnering with third party solution providers to provide IaaS and hosted security services to other small businesses across Canada.

The data from Hulkenberg's car does get encrypted and prioritized. One of the new rule changes from the Formula 1 Association (FIA) reduced the amount of practice time for drivers like Hulkenberg and others in the 12 team field. This new regulation had a deep impact on Williams F1 who made the decision to put more emphasis on quantity of data and the fast file transfers.

AT&T cloud security services enable Williams F1 staff to switch seamlessly from the service provider's network-based firewall.

This switch enabled Williams F1 to increase file transfer speeds specific to engine supplier Cosworth and tire supplier Bridgestone. Since it is run as a managed service it protects against malware, worms, spam and viruses.

"That data is vital because it can tell the driver they can get close to the wall, maybe even kiss it because we'll learn (from practice rounds and qualifying) what it did to the rear suspension and other things and be able to make a decision," Burns said.

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