Britain envisions computing grid
Thursday, August 2, 2001
Austin American Statesman
Cox News — Britain envisions computing grid
By Bob Keefe
American-Statesman West Coast Staff
Thursday, August 2, 2001
SAN DIEGO — In the quest to build the next generation of the Internet, the focus is turning not to Silicon Valley or Washington, but to the other side of the Atlantic.
Britain took a major step last week toward its goal of creating a national computing grid — similar to the electricity grids that keep the lights on throughout the United States — by formally establishing national computing centers at nine universities.
Today, the British government plans to announce that IBM Corp. will help provide the hardware and software. IBM will announce a similar deal with the Netherlands.
The deal is not only a multimillion-dollar coup for IBM but also puts the company at the forefront of helping build what could become a new worldwide supercomputer network.
Researchers at IBM’s Austin facility will lead the company’s effort to develop commercial applications.
Grid computing “is the next big thing,” said John Patrick, vice president of Internet technology at IBM. “This is a natural evolution into the next generation of the Internet.”
The idea of grid computing is relatively simple: By linking supercomputers together, scientists and others can easily share software and vast amounts of data, much like they can do with the current Internet. But in addition, they can share computing power and storage space for complicated computations.
One well-known version of the idea is the [email protected] project in which users agree to allow their dormant PCs to be used by scientists to hunt for extraterrestrials when a machine’s screen saver kicks in.
“This is about the other end of the spectrum, a server effort,” said Dev Mukherjee, vice president of E-sourcing strategy at IBM. “If I’m a researcher and want to model DNA or something in nuclear physics, to get this done I need to pull hundreds of processors together. The grid allows you to reserve 1,500 or 1,600 processors to run your application on.”
In some ways, the grid program will be similar to ARPANET, the forerunner of today’s Internet, which was developed to allow government and other researchers to link computers, share data and collaborate on projects.
Because individuals can share computation power instead of buying supercomputers, they also can keep down expenses. But in part because of security concerns, slow connections and other problems, grid computing has been slow in gaining acceptance.
In the United States, NASA uses grid computing, and supercomputers at several universities around the country are linked into a grid. Several companies, including IBM, are trying to commercialize the idea of shared computing.
IBM hopes to take grid a step further, using an open software platform called Globus to bring distributed computing to corporations.
Such a platform, for instance, would enable a company to harness some excess computing power from servers running its inventory-management programs to provide additional capacity for Web servers when traffic to the company’s Internet site increases. IBM would like to take the idea even further, allowing different companies to share their computing power.
“The lab in Austin has installed the Globus software and, over next few months, will be experimenting with it,” Mukherjee said. “You should start to see commercial applications in the next few years.”
But Jack Dongarra, director of the University of Tennessee’s Innovative Computing Laboratory, said in a recent interview that grid computing “is not suited for general-purpose computing,” adding that “it’s viable only for specialized problems.”
Not so, in the eyes of Europeans. Last year, the British government agreed to spend more than $107 million on developing its national computing grid.
“There is the potential for the grid to become very, very big,” said Tony Hey, director of Britain’s E-Science program, which is creating the British national grid.
Staff writer John Pletz contributed to this story. You may contact Bob Keefe at [email][email protected][/email].