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Last Updated: Sunday, 5 October, 2003, 07:40 GMT 08:40 UK
Computing net promises vast power
BBC ClickOnline's David Reid goes behind the scenes at the European particle physics laboratory, Cern, to report on how they are working on the next generation of the net.

Collider (Image: Cern)
Collider is assembled in ultra-clean conditions (Image: Cern)
Scientists are currently constructing the world's largest particle accelerator.

Its aim is to simulate the Big Bang that created the Universe.

When it is ready in 2007, it will run under the Swiss countryside in a huge circle.

The particles fired down its length will generate enough data in a year to fill a pile of CDs the size of the Eiffel Tower.

What to do with that data and how to share it with scientists around the world is the essence of the Grid, the name given to the international network of supercomputers that promises to revolutionise not just the way we use the internet, but computing itself.

For now the Grid is composed of noisy, air-conditioned computer centres dotted around the world, full of PCs all linked together to make a giant super-computer.

Scientists are currently limited in what they can do by their own hardware's memory, software and processing power.

Once the Grid is up and running anyone hooked up to it will have all the programs, power and storage they could dream of.

Speed of light

"The idea is that even in a small institute where a physicist may need to have very large computing power for his particular problem, he can go off from his desk, launch the job and get the job done using computer centres all over the world, get the results back and write the publication afterwards," said Wolfgang von Ruden, head of information technology at Cern.

When it is ready, Cern's Large Hadron Collider will be sunk underground, where particles will smash into each other just below the speed of light.

Computer-generated image of the LHC tunnel (Image: Cern)
The accelerator will test the Big Bang theory (Image: Cern)
Just as Cern has used contractors to find the tools and talent for the job of putting the collider together, so the Grid will employ a similar agent.

It will use software designed to sniff out where in the world are the computing resources - software, memory, processing power - for a particular task. In short, computing is becoming a utility to be piped into your home or office, like electricity or gas.

"If you understand the web to be a source of information, you have servers which provide the information and you as a user are not aware of where those servers sit, you just go to a link, you click on it and you get the information," said Ian Bird, Grid Deployment Manager.

"You can think of the Grid in the same terms except that it is providing computing services and storage services on your behalf at places that you don't really have to know where they are."

Web creators

Scientific applications aside, the Grid's impact will be felt most strongly in businesses, such as design or architectural firms, heavily reliant on the latest software.

For now they can only dream of getting their hands on the toweringly expensive software needed to prepare a bid for big ticket commissions.

Designs by small architectural companies are limited by the technology the firms can afford to buy.

Hooked up to the Grid, and all the software and processing power it promises, the complexity of the projects a firm could take on would be limited only by the architect's ambition and imagination.

If you suspect the claims being made for the Grid are over-blown and exaggerated, you might bear in mind that it was scientists at Cern who invented the World Wide Web.




SEE ALSO:
Grid helps science go sky-high
02 May 02  |  Science/Nature
Computing power on tap
02 Aug 01  |  Science/Nature
Powering up the Grid
28 Jun 00  |  Science/Nature
Huge computing power goes online
30 Sep 03  |  Technology


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