Jewish World Review Sept. 22, 2003 / 25 Elul, 5763

Move over Internet, here comes the ‘Grid ’ | (KRT) First came the Internet in the late1960s, electronically linking computers around the world. The '90s brought the World Wide Web, making it possible to exchange words, pictures, music, videos and information of every sort.

Now comes the Grid, a third wave in the evolution of the cyberworld that promises to give users access to unprecedented computing power, services and data no matter where they are located.

Ultimately, supporters say, the Grid will be like having a supercomputer at your fingertips. Astronomers in Massachusetts and California could share the same telescope in Hawaii without leaving their offices. A travel agent could give customers a live video tour of a resort in Cancun so they can watch sunbathers frolic on the beach in real time.

"Consumers are about to be touched, influenced and benefited by grid computing in ways they can't even imagine," said Thomas Hawk, manager of grid computing for IBM in Somers, N.Y. "Advances in medicine, improvements in homeland defense, more advanced video games are right around the corner."

Grid computing will "put us into a new realm - a new way of doing science," said Daniel Atkins, chairman of a National Science Foundation committee that's pressing for a drastic enhancement of the nation's "cyberinfrastructure" to help the Grid grow. Cyberinfrastructure is a clunky term for the vast assemblage of computers, networks, databanks and tools that support the information age.

The Grid is more than just physical infrastructure - computers, storage devices and the networks connecting them the way roads, pipelines and power lines connect cities. Grid computing also requires highly sophisticated software programs that enable a user at point A to draw on the computational resources located at points B, C, D and so forth.

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"The Internet lets computers talk together - grid computing lets computers work together," Hawk explained in a telephone call.

The Grid will be "the next level of cyberinfrastructure," Atkins said in an interview. "It includes all the resources you need - data, digital libraries, online instruments, collaborative tools and so on. It's the total set of stuff you need to do whatever you do - a way to pull these all together into a comprehensive environment."

A person sitting at his or her home PC is not likely to use grid computing directly. The benefits will come indirectly, through better, faster and possibly cheaper services from organizations, both public and private, that are linked to the Grid.

Hawk suggested five industries where grid computing will have an early impact:

  • Financial services, such as investment risk analysis.

  • Medicine, for cancer research and new drug discovery

  • Energy, for oil exploration

  • Manufacturing, for complex mechanical design.

  • Entertainment, for the creation of artful digital characters.

Scattered pieces of the Grid are already in operation. The Department of Energy has a Science Grid connecting its far-flung laboratories. NASA operates its own Information Power Grid. The NSF is constructing the TeraGrid to link major U.S. computing centers. Europe and Japan are building their versions of the Grid, which in some cases will be more advanced than the United States' own.

The need for something like grid computing is becoming painfully obvious. The system is being overwhelmed by a tidal wave of scientific, engineering and commercial data.

"The amounts of calculation and the quantities of information that can be stored, transmitted and used are exploding at a stunning, almost disruptive rate," Peter Freeman, NSF assistant director for computer science, told Congress.

In 1986, the fastest computer network could carry 56,000 bits (7,000 bytes) of information per second over a dial-up modem hooked to a poky telephone line. That was enough to fill about three pages of a book.

Today, however, 40 billion bits (5 billion bytes) - enough to fill more than 2 million pages - per second zip over a high-speed link connecting major supercomputer centers. That's more than 700,000 times faster than network connections 17 years ago.

High-end computers can now process terabytes (trillions of bytes) of data per second and are approaching the range of petabytes (a thousand trillion bytes). Not far off is the age of exabytes (a million trillion bytes).

Despite their blinding speed, "computational resources are failing to keep up with what scientists demand of them," said Ian Foster, a computer scientist and Grid apostle at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago.

For example, a single high-resolution brain scan now generates up to three terabytes of data. By the end of the decade, a huge all-sky survey will be producing about 10 petabytes of astronomical facts each year. Starting in 2012, a massive atom smasher under construction in Switzerland will need to distribute exabytes to thousands of physicists around the globe.

Grid computing will be "essential, not optional" for future scientific research, the Atkins committee declared.

Scientists won't be the only beneficiaries, however. In an e-mail, Foster reported an explosion of commercial as well as scientific interest in the Grid. It's beginning to draw attention from manufacturers, retailers, financial companies, health care professionals, security officials, moviemakers and educators, among others.

Charles Schwab, the Wall Street brokerage firm, for example, is using a grid computing system developed by IBM to give its clients real-time advice on their investments.

Grid computing will provide "on-demand access to data-crunching capabilities and functions not available to one individual or group of machines," Foster said. "The utility of the combined system is significantly greater than the sum of its parts."

The NSF committee recommended that $1 billion a year be spent on an Advanced Cyberinfrastructure Program to support grid computing. Additional millions would come from universities, laboratories and private industry.

Last week the NSF awarded $9 million to researchers to develop "shared cybertools for the cyberinfrastructure of tomorrow."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services