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Analytics places F1 team in top gear for data performance

Analytics places F1 team in top gear for data performance

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Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport is the Formula One Team of Mercedes-Benz, competing at the pinnacle of motorsport – the FIA Formula One World Championship.

Formula One is like nothing else in the sporting sphere. It’s a demanding technical and human challenge, combining cutting-edge technologies and innovation, high-performance management and elite teamwork.

During the course of a gruelling calendar, which spans 21 countries in as many Grand Prix events from March to November, teams battle it out to be crowned World Champions.

At Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, a team of nearly 1,500 passionate, determined people work across two world-class technology campuses, designing, developing, manufacturing and racing the cars and Hybrid Power Units driven by four-time World Champion, Lewis Hamilton and race-winning team-mate, Valtteri Bottas.

The team has set a new benchmark for F1 success during the sport’s current hybrid era, winning the Constructors’ and Drivers’ World Championships in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. During those four Championship-winning seasons, the team has scored 63 wins, 122 podiums, 71 pole positions, 43 fastest laps and 35 one-two finishes from 79 race starts.

Data is the most critical asset a business has. The effective storage, analysis and leveraging of data leads directly to competitive advantage in practically every industry in the world. Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport adopted Pure Storage’s FlashArray and FlashBlade technology for this reason. FlashArray (70TB) sits trackside, collecting data from 250+ sensors on the car, meanwhile it uses FlashBlade (1.2PB) at its R&D facility to assist with the design of future cars.

Mercedes-Benz is a legendary name in motor racing, beginning in the 1930s, with back-to-back world championships in the mid-1950s. After an absence of many years, Mercedes returned with a factory team in 2010 and once again is making history. The Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team has become one of the most successful teams in F1 history, having won drivers’ and constructors’ titles in 2014 and 2015. Mercedes collected 16 victories each in 2014 & 2015, breaking Ferrari’s 2004 total of 15.

To maintain this record-setting pace, technology is an important contributor to the teams’ success and its impact is felt in all facets of the operation – from design and prototyping, manufacturing and testing, all the way to trackside during a Grand Prix race. The team has invested tens of millions of dollars in state-of-the-art tools such as computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM), visualisation and driver-in-the-loop simulation at its headquarters in Brackley, UK.

Everyone on the team has a singular focus: improving the performance of the two cars they put on the track every two weeks during the F1 season. Incremental improvement is the goal. Shaving even a fraction of a second off the time it takes a car to complete a lap can mean the difference between winning and losing.

The goal of constant improvement is always on the mind of Matt Harris, Head of IT for the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team: “Our role is to support every other member of the team to help them do their job more effectively. Harris is honest about how IT contributes, “We can’t do anything to directly make the car go faster but we can make the car stop.”

The team races two cars a year and the unique conditions of each Grand Prix circuit requires that the
cars be modified for each race. “Some companies have a new-product cycle of two or three years. For us, we put a new product out on the track every two weeks,” Harris observed.

Pure selected to boost performance

In 2014, Harris and his team started to evaluate how changes in the storage infrastructure might contribute to the goal of ever-improving performance. In a process lasting more than a year, the team along with solution provider, Response Data Communications, “looked at all the storage vendors across the board; every kind of technology,” Harris recalled. “It was a bit daunting at the start but in the end, Pure Storage was the easy decision.”

One reason for the choice was the long-term growth path provided by Pure Storage. “We could have made an incremental change to gain some modest improvements but we wanted a step change in performance, something that would last for many years.” Another reason for the choice was that the team required an infrastructure that was both state-of-the-art and portable. Putting performance-critical workloads trackside each race requires density and reliability. Pure Storage offered the team a solution that mapped perfectly to these business requirements. Harris recalled: “The choice was clear once we realised we could eliminate bulky, heavy hardware, improve our performance and actually save money, taking the technology with us around the world.”

“Pure Storage’s Evergreen business model removed the anxiety of the traditional storage renewal. It’s a brilliant example of the simplicity you get with Pure and it changes the board-level conversation when trying to propose a new platform,” said Harris. “The typical concerns about future issues – capacity, upgrades, maintenance and how much it will all cost us again – are no longer an issue. We were able to immediately focus on getting the technology in the door and impacting the business as quickly as possible.”

Benefits from Pure Storage

Since buying its first FlashArray from Pure Storage in 2015, the team has added several more and has moved virtually all its production applications and data onto Pure Storage arrays. This includes Microsoft SQL Server and Oracle databases, CATIA CAD/CAM, SAP, VMware servers, SharePoint and back-office functions along with Cisco UCS in its data centre.

The ability to run so many different applications on one storage system is a big benefit. Harris observed: “We used to have to add spindles to our spinning disk system if we needed to boost performance for an application such as SAP. Now we have all of our applications on Pure Storage and they all get the same high-level of performance. We’ve eliminated complexity and we’ve eliminated possible points of failure. We now have a single storage infrastructure shared across all platforms, with resiliency built in.”

Once the Pure Storage array was installed, “everybody started to see the benefits. In fact, we saw improvements in areas that we didn’t expect.”

One such area was a frequently used query to a SQL Server database which previously had taken about four and a half minutes to execute. “It now takes 13 seconds simply as a consequence of moving the SQL Server to Pure Storage, nothing else.”

The impact of high-performance storage has also been felt in the frequent and widespread use of data collected from the cars during a race. Each car is fitted with more than 200 physical sensors and the data gathered during a race is carefully scrutinised by team members across multiple design functions to glean all possible insights that could help improve performance, both for the next race and over the long term.

Approximately 400GB of data is collected during each race, a total of 9TB for the entire season. Employees at team headquarters studying this data use a two-step process to extract the information they need. First, metadata about the files is downloaded, resulting in a list of available files. Once a file is selected, it is then opened. If that file isn’t the right one, the process must be repeated. This two-step process used to take around seven minutes. Now it now takes two and a half minutes, a reduction approaching 70%. This means that team members spend much less time waiting to get access to the data. “Every single minute is precious to us in the context of the limited amount of time we have to prepare between sessions, in particular between the three sessions in qualifying,” Harris noted.

Among the most data-intensive applications used by Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team is computational fluid dynamics (CFD), an essential tool in the design and test process. It’s used to simulate the performance of a part or a design element of the car under race conditions. CFD applications require massive processing power and can take up to 20 hours to run. Initial testing has shown moving these applications onto Pure Storage has reduced some processing time by up to 15%, “this means that we can run more jobs a week just by changing storage,” Harris noted. “The opportunity to run more design simulations in the same amount of time greatly enhances our ability to improve the car’s performance. Pure Storage is our unfair advantage.”

Using Pure lowers operating costs

The impact of Pure Storage on the team’s operations extends beyond the seven-building campus where design, manufacturing and office operations are carried out. IT equipment must be shipped to the site of each race. By moving to FlashArray from Pure Storage, the size and weight of storage equipment needed at the track has been sharply decreased.”

The reliability of Pure Storage arrays is highly prized by the team, as IT equipment at the track must be able to accommodate a wide range of weather conditions and must withstand multiple assembly and disassembly procedures during the course of the season.

As a veteran IT professional, Harris appreciates many aspects of Pure Storage products. “The simplicity of the solution is brilliant. Our storage administrators used to spend in aggregate three days a week on storage issues. Now they spend three hours per week, if that.”

The small footprint of the Pure Storage arrays has meant a 68% reduction in data centre rack space,
resulting in a savings in operating costs. Harris said: “The support we receive makes Pure Storage an extension of our team. They bring issues to our attention before we are even aware of them. We don’t have to think about storage anymore.”

The ability of Pure Storage to perform non-disruptive upgrades has also impressed Harris: “When we
upgraded our FA-450 arrays to the //m20. and //m70. models, we did it on a weekday morning during
full production runs. I never would have thought that was possible.”

Harris concluded: “We’re a small IT team and the amount of data we handle isn’t that huge compared to a lot of big companies. However, the data we collect is extremely valuable and helps us maintain a competitive advantage in a short amount of time. IT’s pledge is to make that process as fast and reliable as possible. Pure Storage delivers on that promise.”

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