CIO interview: Mercedes AMG Petronas IT director on the need for speed in IT

When Matt Harris became IT director for F1 team Mercedes AMG Petronas in 2009, IT costs needed to be slashed

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When Matt Harris took over as IT director of Mercedes AMG Petronas in 2009, the Formula One team had just been taken over by Ross Brawn and IT costs needed to be slashed.

The F1 boss, who was previously chief designer at Ferrari, took over when Honda pulled out of Formula One.

In 2009, Brawn GP won the constructor’s championship and Brawn GP driver Jensen Button won the driver’s championship.

But the winning season began with upheaval as the team desperately needed to drive down costs. For Harris, this meant his team was virtually halved, dropping from 24 staff to 13.

"The team wanted people who could manage and do. We couldn't afford people who just managed. The 13 had to be very good at what they were doing," he says. 

To manage the job losses, Harris says everyone was offered redundancy: "We wanted the best people to stay, but we lost some of the good ones. We got rid of the support staff and kept the technical staff, because technical staff can do support. So we lost the first layer of support."

He admits this was not ideal, and over time the team has bolstered the IT support side. In 2014, Harris added extra technical architects.

A LAN in every race location

In every Formula One race location, Tata provides a multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) network and handles the handover between the local telco provider and the pit lane garage to ensure that the Mercedes AMG Petronas IT team gets a fibre cable to the garage with the same IP address that their equipment has been pre-configured to use.

"We get two fibre cables to the garage, which we plug into our two routers," says Matt Harris, IT director at Mercedes AMG Petronas. "At the back of the router we already pre-plumb the internal LAN [local area network], which connects the switches in the garage to our firewalls in the UK."

The art of winning

Winning the world championship is clearly a big thing. Given that the team won the 2014 Formula One World Constructor’s title, and on top of that Mercedes AMG Petronas driver Lewis Hamilton was crowned the driver’s champion for 2014, how did the IT team celebrate? 

"I celebrated when the team won the Constructor's Championship – we've won; we've done our job," says Harris. 

"The driver's championship is the icing on the cake," he adds. "Luckily, Lewis won the race. But had it been the other way round – Lewis hadn’t finished and Nico [Rosberg] had won – then we would have lost the championship for one driver. How do you celebrate this person when you've let the other driver down?"

Communications on a global scale

FIA, the association that governs Formula One, restricts each team to 60 people at each event. 

This means communication with the factory is critical in prepping the car, since engineers at Mercedes AMG Petronas's factory in Brackley need to speak directly with the track-side team during a race weekend to make sure the cars perform at their best. 

To manage this, says Harris, a larger team in Brackley supports the team in the pit garage through real-time telemetry.

Tata Communications is the team's global communications provider. Having a global provider handle the intricacies of connecting to local service providers greatly simplifies the job for the IT team at Mercedes AMG Petronas, according to Harris. 

I can't afford to put in leading edge technology because I've got to make sure I don't stop the car

Matt Harris, Mercedes AMG Petronas

"There is a big difference between a pit lane service provider and an enterprise service," he says. On track, telemetry data from the race cars is transmitted wirelessly to the garage and over Tata’s global communication network back to engineers in the UK.

The biggest unknown is getting connectivity to the garage, wherever the Formula One race is being hosted. 

In the past, the communications infrastructure in F1 was limited to email. "Ten years ago, I had ISDN for email, then went to ADSL," says Harris. But ADSL works in the wrong direction, given that most of the time the team needs to upload a large quantity of data from the car and garage servers back to the Brackley factory. 

A global provider like Tata is able to guarantee connectivity and bandwidth, which means Harris no longer attends F1 races. "I have been to three event in the past five years – I can see as much here as on the track," he says.

Harris now sends two of the IT team to every race event, where it runs about 100 virtual machines at the track, ranging from domain controllers to SQL servers and file servers to specialist processors. All of this equipment is housed in custom racks with 60TB of storage, and is based on fault-tolerant infrastructure. 

There are also about 60 laptops onsite for engineers, mechanics, on the pit wall and for marketing staff. All of this IT infrastructure and the laptops and network is setup by the team of two IT people. "It is all set up on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, used between Thursday and Sunday – then it is pulled apart in four hours," says Harris.

Tata also sends a team of two to each race, to set up connectivity to its global MPLS network for Mercedes AMG Petronas. This is up and running on the Sunday, a week prior to the race, ready for when the team arrives, which is typically on the Tuesday prior to race weekend.

The role of IT

IT is definitely part of the formula for a winning driver and a winning car. Harris says the car would not be able to leave the garage without IT, but once on the track, its performance is determined by man and machine.

It is often said Formula One is at the forefront of technology. And yes, the teams do use supercomputers to run complex fluid dynamics models and simulations to eke out every last drop of performance from the race cars. 

More on F1 IT

"We produce nearly as much data as Cern due to CFD [computational fluid dynamics] analysis. We have a lot less wind tunnel time, so we work with simulations which help to improve the car," says Harris.

That said, from a technical infrastructure perspective, Harris would rather play it safe: "Tech is getting leading edge. I can't afford to put in leading edge because I've got to make sure I don't stop the car." 

As a consequence, there are multiple levels of redundancy. So if voice communications go down, the team will be able to communicate over Blackberry Messenger.

As in other businesses, IT supports day-to-day operations. In the factory, people and machines connect to the local area network (LAN). "We provide the LAN connectivity and make sure our machines connect to the network and can send email," says Harris.

For instance, the computer numeric controlled (CNC) production autoclave machines that Mercedes AMG Petronas uses to manufacture every component on its Formula One cars are LAN-connected embedded Windows machines.

Like a typical enterprise, Mercedes AMG Petronas runs quarterly and yearly reviews with Tata, where the team discusses areas that need improvement – what has gone well and what needs to change. 

It also has a weekly one-hour call throughout the year, in season and out of season. Harris says everyone is there to make sure everything is working, whether it is technical or commercial, legal or marketing.

Speaking on the difference between Formula One and the enterprise, Harris says the CIOs work with the same type of technology, but to different timeframes. "We may have a slightly more IT-focused workforce, because nearly everybody’s job involves a computer, but the biggest difference between us and the enterprise is time. People talk about deploying a massively [complex] pieces of work over two years. I do it in four months." 

He cites the team's move to a new onsite datacentre. "We started thinking about the datacentre on 1 October 2013. By 1 January 2014, I had £1m of IT equipment, then a further £1m a month later."

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