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The CRISTAL Database

Software developed initially for keeping track of CMS crystals is being used today in a variety of fields, from Alzheimer’s research to business process management.

The CMS’s electromagnetic calorimeter, an instrument that measures particle energies after collisions, uses crystals to take data; each crystal is unique and is labeled with a barcode so it can be tracked through the all stages of production and operation. In the early days of the CMS, as the crystals were first being manufactured, CERN scientists knew that tracking so much information through the entire development process was going to be a challenge.

A database system to handle such large amounts of data must be adaptable and flexible, able to evolve with the rapidly-changing technology. It would be imperative that it could extract all data ever recorded, even if the data was stored in an obsolete format or old computer system and the methods for fetching said data had changed. All information must also be traceable back to its original source.

Since this caliber of database didn’t exist in the mid-1990s, researchers from CERN, CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research), and UWE (University of the West of England) decided to develop their own.

Thus, CRISTAL was born.

CRISTAL (Cooperative Repositories and Information System for Tracking Assembly Lifestyles) is unlike any other database system of its time. It is “description-driven”, meaning that its database structures can be modified at any time without altering the data themselves. The structures can be copied between databases along with their stored data. These characteristics make CRISTAL unique and useful across many fields.

At UWE, for example, CRISTAL has been used in their neuGRID project and and its follow-up project, N4U (neuGRIDforUsers). The UWE researchers have developed a Grid-based infrastructure to facilitate collaboration between European neuroscientists, like a “Google for brain imaging”. The neuGRID software has the capacity to process thousands of brain scans and compare image datasets, providing resources and practical tools for physicians. Their aim is to better understand Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain diseases, leading to more research towards finding a cure.

The technology of the CRISTAL database is also being applied in the world of business. Two spin-off companies have sprouted from CRISTAL: Agilium handles business process management, and Technoledge uses CRISTAL for production-line management in hi-tech manufacturing.

In 2014, CRISTAL 3.0 was launched as open-source on GitHub (now under the name CRISTAL-ISE) allowing researchers and developers to experiment with its source code themselves. Though the project has now mostly separated from CERN, the development of CRISTAL-ISE continues today, and its roots will always be in CMS. 

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CMS,LHC
Crystals, produced in Russia, that are to be used as scintillators for the electromagnetic calorimeter on the CMS experiment at CERN. (Image: CERN)