Racing towards the cloud: an interview with Caterham head of group IT Bill Peters

By Danny Palmer
01 Aug 2014 View Comments
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When your job involves managing IT for both a sports car manufacturer and a Formula 1 team, no day is ever going to be the same.

"One day I'll be working on the ERP system for the automotive side of the business, then the next day I'll be looking at the supercomputing ability for the Formula 1 team," Bill Peters, head of group IT at Caterham Group told Computing. "Whilst at the same time keeping an eye on innovations that could give us some competitive advantage."

A key area for that innovation is data analytics and Peters, who prior to joining Caterham worked at another F1 team, described how the sport has been dealing with big data since long before it became fashionable.

"In Formula 1 we've actually been doing big data since before it was called big data and we've been doing it for a long while. We're capturing a lot of telemetry, simulation and analysis data and processing that," he said, going on to describe how the team is always examining how it can improve data analysis.

"We're now looking at tools to better enable that going forward so we can get more of a holistic view of all the information we're capturing. Whether that's data coming off the cars on a race weekend, simulators, television footage, it's about bringing that all together and gathering the big picture."

Naturally, all of that data needs to be stored and processed somewhere and Caterham has employed "a very heavily virtualised environment", for this, with Peters describing how the team "set out from the get-go to virtualise our enterprise and trackside systems."

"My ambition is to be the first team to have our trackside systems in the cloud, so we're planning progression towards that," he explained.

For Caterham - and the 10 other Formula 1 teams - setting up a garage on a far-flung race circuit involves a lot of logistical effort, but because the outfit has virtualised much of its trackside environment, it's made this process quicker and cheaper.

"Typically, teams still carry four or five racks full of IT equipment to every event. We've managed to condense that down to a half-size rack with a completely virtualised environment," said Peters.

"The significance of that is we save a huge amount of money in terms of shifting this kit around the world. Ultimately, we'd like to not carry anything other than the tablets and we're gradually moving towards that situation."

However, hardware isn't totally disappearing from Caterham's plans, with devices ranging from laptops to tablets to supercomputers all required for the team's activities. When Caterham was founded, it needed to do what Peters described as a "quick and dirty" tendering process to ensure the team was ready to compete at the first race of the season.

The importance of being able to quickly establish the entire IT infrastructure from scratch was a key selection criterion, which is why Caterham selected Dell and continues the relationship to this day.

"We had a lot to do in not a lot of time so we wanted to have as few vendors as possible and Dell practically ticked off every area of the schematic, which was a very pleasant surprise," said Peters, who cited technical fit, cost and "a commitment to being able to deliver" as reasons for selection.

"If they didn't deliver on time, there would be penalties because if we as a team didn't make the grid in March we would have suffered millions of pounds for not being there, so Dell put their money where their mouth is."

Peters told Computing how Caterham's Dell hardware is "standard off-the-shelf kit" and that he's particularly impressed with the Venue hybrid tablets, which he rolled out this year.

"We've finally got a product from Dell that is usable for us as a trackside product; they're fully-fledged Windows PCs in a tablet, which is what we've been looking for. Because to be useful for us we've got to be able to run bespoke applications and with iPads we just couldn't do that," he said, noting the lightweight tablets make life easier for engineers who are constantly on the move.

"Previously guys had to lug around chunky laptops to have the horsepower they need to run our bespoke applications. Now they've got much more lightweight devices," he said, adding "there's definitely a shift towards the tablets."

[Please turn to page 2]

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