IT strategy development for the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics

Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics

The Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics is a German research institute based in Potsdam and Hannover, aimed at investigating Einstein's theory of relativity and beyond: mathematics, quantum gravity, astrophysical relativity and gravitational wave astronomy. Institute scientists are involved in analysing data for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which first detected gravitational waves; part of this computation is Einstein@Home, a distributed computing project that searches for signals from rotating neutron stars in data from LIGO. The detection of gravitation waves resulted in the award of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics to LIGO pioneers, who acknowledged the pivotal role of the thousands of scientists at multiple institutions who had contributed to the discovery.

The three LISA satellites orbit the sun, tracking the Earth's path

Current initiatives include LISA - the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna - a European Space Agency/NASA mission. LISA consists of three spacecraft that are separated by millions of miles and trailing tens of millions of miles, more than one hundred times the distance to the Moon, behind the Earth as we orbit the Sun. These three spacecraft relay laser beams back and forth between the different spacecraft. By precisely measuring changes in distance between the three satellites, it will be possible to directly observe ripples in spacetime caused by gravitational waves, triggered by extreme events such as the merger of supermassive black holes. The mission is currently planned to launch in 2034.

Much of the work of the institute is computationally-intensive. In addition, researchers regularly collaborate with external partners in other academic bodies and in the space agencies. The IT team has operations in both Potsdam and Hannover - they are responsible for supporting scientific computing, collaboration and administration in the two locations.

Challenges

Dr Mike Rose was appointed Head of IT in September 2016. After a year in post, he faced a number of challenges:

  • Aging infrastructure, applications and processes were placing growing demands on IT staff, preventing them from undertaking significant new projects
  • The proliferation of hardware and applications, driven by highly autonomous and technically-capable scientists, presented a growing support burden to the team
  • Demand for data storage, and to access data and high-performance computing from any location continues to grow, offset against a need to comply with complex data protection legislation and to manage the data securely

To assist with these challenges, Mike engaged eqsystems.io to review current projects, processes, team and structures to identify gaps, and to identify a clear strategy with objectives and key results for the IT team.

Approach

The primary intervention was a detailed SWOT analysis, constructed through 1:1 interviews with Mike and his team members in Potsdam and Hannover. Towards the end of the week, dot-voting was used to prioritise the information in the SWOT analysis, drawing out the key themes and providing the basis for the strategy for the IT team. 

Many strategies don't survive first encounter with reality. This can be for a number of reasons - key pieces of insight have been missed in the diagnostic phase, or plans have been put together without consultation with the people who are charged with delivering them. To avoid this, following the week of consultation, Mike then took his team through the analysis, in order to validate it, discover different views on priorities and to secure their buy-in. 

Subsequent to the trip, we held a series of video calls using Fuze which provided a high-quality, stable channel for face-to-face communications at a distance. Strategy development is an iterative process, meaning that a blended approach of shorter calls, and a deep-dive intensive period of activity was the most appropriate way forward.

Results