Happy birthday, FCC!

On Dec. 2, 1988, a brand-new building was added to the Fermilab campus: the Feynman Computing Center. The dedication of FCC coincided with the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking for the National Accelerator Laboratory, which was celebrated with a full slate of activities, including speeches, visits from consul generals, politicians and other officials, and a celebration in the atrium. On this important day in Fermilab’s history, FCC symbolized how far the lab had come and where it was headed. Thirty years later, FCC still stands as a steady fixture on the Fermilab property, evidence of the timeless role of computing at the lab.

Fermilab’s Feynman Computing Center is named for famed scientist Richard Feynman. Photo courtesy of the American Institute of Physics

Leon Lederman speaks at the FCC dedication. Photo: Reidar Hahn

At the FCC dedication, most of the speeches were tributes to Richard Feynman, theoretical physicist, Nobel Prize winner, inventor of Feynman diagrams, renowned science educator and FCC namesake. Leon Lederman, the director of Fermilab at the time, started the dedication ceremony by referring to Feynman as “one of the giants in our age of theoretical physics.” He spoke about Feynman’s interest in and contributions to computing.

Today, Feynman’s work is still important to the field of computing. He was one of the originators of the idea of quantum computing, so it is fitting that some of Fermilab’s upcoming work in this discipline will happen in FCC. Lederman concluded his speech by describing his hopes for FCC: “In naming this center after him [Feynman], it is our fervent hope that out of this architecturally elegant computer house, good science will emerge which would have pleased him very much.”

The architecturally elegant computer house

Like many of the structures at the lab, FCC’s design was influenced by Robert Wilson, Fermilab’s first director and an architectural consultant for the center. The three-story, 74,000-square-foot semicircular building was designed to complement the unique, innovative architecture seen throughout Fermilab’s campus. Its striking vertical lines formed by the alternating concrete panels and dark glass windows were inspired by the design of the Ramsey Auditorium. The building has stood the test of time very well, even as the technology it holds has changed dramatically.

This model of Feynman Computing Center shows similarities to Ramsey Auditorium. Photo: Fermilab

Ramsey Auditorium was one of the inspirations in the design of FCC. Photo: Peter Ginter

Growth space for a decade and beyond

FCC was built to house the Computing organization, including the 50 employees located in FCC at its dedication; the lab’s VAX clusters, which were made up of smaller workstations originally used for data acquisition; and an Amdahl 5890/300, one of the last large mainframe computers. When FCC opened, users needing to store or read tapes would bring the tape to the first floor of FCC and hand it to an operator, and the operator would take it back into the archives. Since then, the computers, processors, storage and data retrieval technology have improved in many ways.

A DEC VAX cluster was originally used for data acquisition. Photo: Reidar Hahn

The mainframe computer system Amdahl 5890/300 in FCC is shown with the operator console in the foreground. Photo: Reidar Hahn

The modern FCC data center uses tape robots to move tapes from storage to drives where data is read. Photo: Reidar Hahn

Today, FCC is the central location for Fermilab’s computing staff, with over 150 employees and many support groups working from the building. It holds two data centers that are much smaller, sleeker and faster than the machines in FCC 30 years ago. Although the machines are a fraction of the size they were at the building’s dedication, they can store much more data. The computing areas are carefully designed to be as energy-efficient as possible, and the data centers now use tape robots to move tapes from storage to the drives where the data is read.

These improvements, along with all the others that were developed over the long history of innovation and hard work in the Computing organization, are the foundation for many more years of success.