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Fri, Jul 04, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Scientists ready to unveil `The Grid'

INFINITE POWER Researchers in Geneva are preparing to unveil what may become the Internet's successor


In two weeks' time scientists in Geneva will throw the switch on the biggest development in global communication since Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the internet, scrawled "www" on a blackboard in 1989. They will announce that ten laboratories around the world can now talk to each other through their computers.

In the age of high-speed digital communication this may not seem revolutionary. But this small step for computer kind marks the launch of a new technological concept -- the next generation of the Web.

It is called the grid, and scientists say that before long it will change everything we do -- from scientific research to business to tackling fires to booking holidays, and even to the way we watch and craft movies.

The internet currently consists of huge servers which contain information on Web pages that is then downloaded on to computers. As a user, you are limited in what you can do with that information by how much memory or processing power your own computer has.

Under the grid, the power of your machine -- all those gigabytes, RAM and gigahertz -- will become irrelevant. No matter how primitive and cheap your computer, you will have access to more power than currently exists in the Pentagon.

"You just say I want this information and the [grid] is set up so that it goes out and collects that for you and makes it accessible," says Roger Cashmore, director of research at the European particle physics laboratory, in Cern near Geneva.

The backbone of the grid will be computer centers filled with thousands of PCs linked together. Users will be able to use the programs, processing power or the storage they need as if it all existed on their own computer. And it is seamless -- a user could be sitting tapping into their handheld on a train in England, using an application on a computer in the US and storing files in Thailand and still have unlimited computer power at their disposal.

The Grid

* The grid is a vast network of computers on the internet that will provide dependable and relatively inexpensive access to computer power

* By this time next year, more than 6,000 PCs will be linked to the grid. By 2007, there will be 100,000 computers on the network

* The EU has several projects underway which will harness the power of the grid: CrossGrid aims to extend grid software so that applications such as word processors, spreadsheets or games can be used interactively over the network

Source: The Guardian

It will be a while before the grid has any impact on our lives. Like the Web, the grid is being developed to help scientific research. Cern is building the large hadron collider (LHC), an enormous microscope to investigate the properties of matter.

The LHC will produce phenomenal amounts of data as it accelerates protons to near the speed of light and smashes them together.

Over a year, it will produce some 500 million to 800 million gigabytes of data.

It would take a pile of CDs the height of the Eiffel tower to store that, Cashmore said.

To make any use of this mountain of information, scientists need a way to analyze and filter out what is useful and what can be tossed aside.

To do that, huge quantities of computing power are needed. That is where the grid comes in.

"In a nutshell, the vision [for the grid] is you describe what the input data should be, where you want the output to go and what you want to happen on this data," says Ian Bird, one of those responsible for deploying the grid at Cern. Once the request has been submitted to the grid, specifically designed software -- the resource broker -- gets on the job.

The resource broker acts as a user's agent on the network, picking out the best places to carry out the necessary work at the best prices and making sure everything runs smoothly.

Like stocks and shares, computer power becomes a commodity: users can buy it whenever they need it.

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