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Thursday, 2 August, 2001, 07:19 GMT 08:19 UK
Computing power on tap
Dr Malcolm Atkinson
Professor Atkinson: Grids could be new rallying call
By BBC News Online's Alfred Hermida

Imagine being able to plug your computer into the wall and tapping into as much processing power as you need.

This is the vision of IBM, which has won a lucrative contract to build a huge computer network across Europe, to be known as the Grid.

It is going to build and supply massive servers linked together over the internet to hold the information needed for the network.

The Grid differs from the internet as it is much more than a means of communication between computers. It would provide huge data processing power.

"You'll get computing power and storage capacity, not from your own computer, but over the internet on demand," said IBM's Irving Wladawsky-Berger. "You pay for what you use, pretty much the way you do with electric power."

Faster, more powerful computing

The Grid is aimed at building much faster and more powerful computing systems, to enable scientists around the world to focus on complex problems in science, engineering, medicine and the environment.

It will be based on Globus and Linux software, which use the internet as an underlying communication system.

Security structures that would allow us to share a common resource require a lot of research and development

Dr Malcolm Atkinson, National e-Science Centre
It means researchers could combine the power of individual computers to conduct data intensive research, such as human gene and protein studies.

Although much of the focus is on the scientific and educational benefits of the Grid, IBM and others say the Grid could become a resource-sharing model for use in businesses or in the home.

The problem for researchers is that computers use different data formats, making it difficult for them to work together.

"At one time, electricity in the UK was not the same voltage," said Professor Malcolm Atkinson, director of the National e-Science Centre in Edinburgh, UK.

"Computing is like that at the moment. We are looking to hide the differences between operating systems, so that we can use computers everywhere."

Security concerns

Grids would allow computers to work in concert by using standard protocols. They already exist, mainly in government research centres such as the American space agency Nasa, where information such as rocket engine simulations are shared by scientists in laboratories across the US.

A big push for the development of the Grid has come from Cern, the place where the worldwide web was invented

Europe's high-energy physics laboratory, based near Geneva, Switzerland, is currently developing a huge project involving 5,000 scientists in 150 universities, but needs to get masses of computer data to them quickly.

The internet in its current form would not be able to cope with so much data.

An example of the potential benefits is the Seti@home project. Through a screensaver, it harnessed computing power from thousands of individual computers to process data for signs of alien life.

But IBM's vision of pay-as-you-go processing power could be at least 15 years away, according to Professor Atkinson.

"You've have to make certain that people don't interfere with other people's information," he said. "Security structures that would allow us to share a common resource require a lot of research and development."

The UK's national Grid centre is in Edinburgh and other regional centres are at the universities of Newcastle, Belfast, Manchester, Cardiff, Cambridge, Southampton, Oxford and Imperial College, London.

The BBC's Julian Siddle
"The hope is that it will eventually replace the internet"
See also:

27 Jul 01 | Scotland
Grid plan for high speed internet
28 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Powering up the Grid
21 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
Seti@home gets an upgrade
08 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
IBM to build protein supercomputer
09 Jul 01 | Business
HP moves to metered computing
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