Grid of 100,000 computers heralds new internet dawn

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A network of supercomputers called the Grid will allow information to be downloaded quicker than ever. Tasks that took hours will now take seconds

“And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.”
—Genesis 11:6

A network of 100,000 computers providing the greatest data processing capacity yet unleashed has been created to cope with information pouring from the world’s largest machine.

The Grid is the latest evolution of the internet and the world wide web and computer scientists will announce on Friday that it is ready to be connected to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

It is designed for schemes where huge quantities of data need crunching, such as large research and engineering projects. The Grid has the kind of power required to download movies in seconds, and the ability to make high-definition video phone calls for the same price as a local call. More importantly, it should help to narrow the search for cures for diseases. However, it is unlikely to be directly available to most internet users until telecoms providers build the fibre-optic network required to use it.

The Grid allows scientists at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, to get access to the unemployed processing power of thousands of computers in 33 countries to deal with the data created by the LHC.

Scientists at CERN, where the world wide web was invented, created the €500 million Grid because they realised that a single computer would not be able to cope with the amount of data the LHC is expected to produce each year – 15 petabytes, or 15 million gigabytes, which would fill 20 million CDs.

They said that it was an extra facility laid on top of the internet, which originally linked computers around the world in the Seventies.

Dr Bob Jones, a CERN scientist, said: “The [world wide] web allows you to access information on other computers. What the Grid allows you to do is not only access the information, but make use of their computing resources and power.”

He likened it to the National Grid. Users would be able to tap into massive amounts of processing power, but the source of the power would change, depending on availability.

Processing tasks will be distributed between 11 gateway computer centres in ten countries, including Britain, which will share them out between more than 140 sites.

One of the first jobs the Grid will tackle is handling the raw data for CERN’s experiments into finding proof of the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle.

Its uses, however, extend well beyond particle physics and it has already been used on a smaller scale in research into diseases such as malaria and bird flu. “The Grid cannot find a cure for cancer, but what it can do is make it quicker,” said Dr Jones, explaining that what might have taken a decade could now be done in weeks.

David Britton, Professor of Physics at Glasgow University and a leading figure in the Grid project, said: “The old traditional way to find cures for diseases is that you would go to the lab and try mixing various drugs and see how they work.”

With the Grid, he said, scientists could run hundreds of thousands of simulations to create a shortlist of the drugs that are most likely to offer the potential for a cure. Researchers can then get to work testing the drugs singled out as promising.

The Grid has also already been used to save lives in the immediate aftermath of earthquakes. Using the seismic data, scientists can use the Grid for simulations that pinpoint which areas are most affected, allowing rescue teams to direct their efforts where they are most needed.

Many believe the world wide web and the internet are the same thing, but the internet is actually a massive network of networks, which connects millions of computers together globally, and the web is an information-sharing model built on top of the internet, which allows information to be accessed over the medium of the internet.

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