August 4, 2001

Globus Project and IBM putting supercomputing network at your fingertips

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -

This week, IBM has been touting a new initiative called "Grid Computing," kind of supercomputing meets the Internet or a massive distributive computing network. The team at the Globus Project, the 5-year-old Open Source computational grid project on which the IBM initiative is based, are happy to have the additional help and publicity.

IBM announced this week that it was selected to provide the technology for a node of a proposed National Grid in the United Kingdom. Dave Turek, v.p. of Linux and emerging technologies for IBM, says IBM will provide technical expertise and technology to the Globus project as the company looks to speed development and provide services for other companies building business plans around Grids.

"We believe the pursuit of this opportunity through Open Source is precisely the right way to go about this," Turek says. "We value the benefits the community can bring to the table here. Our approach here is not to try to brand Grids as an IBM thing, but to work with this community to really provide the infrastructure that will maximize choice for our ultimate customers."

Ian Foster, co-lead of the Globus Project with Carl Kesselman, says the support of industries such as IBM is important to make the once groundbreaking project forward. "We have now considerable mindshare in the science and engineering research community," Foster says. "Now, for our message and technology of open
architecture, standard protocols to move further, we have to engage and get the
support of industry. Hence IBM's announcement that they will engage in the
process is of great significance."

According to Foster, the Globus Project started in 1996 "following early work on software infrastructure for a big 1995 distributed computing experiment called i-way." The project has grown to include about 30 developers, many at Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Southern California Information Sciences Institute. The group of coders who build tools to sit on top of core Globus services probably number another 50 people.

The Globus FAQ explains the project and the idea of Grids. From the FAQ: "The Grid refers to an infrastructure that enables the integrated, collaborative use of high-end computers,
networks, databases, and scientific instruments owned and managed by multiple organizations. Grid applications often involve large amounts of data and/or computing and often require secure resource sharing across organizational boundaries, and are thus not easily handled by today's Internet and Web infrastructures."

The FAQ gives five examples of new applications enabled by Grids, which can be large or small groups of networked computers dedicated to a task :

  • Smart instruments: Advanced scientific instruments, such as electron microscopes, particle accelerators, and wind tunnels, coupled with remote supercomputers.
  • Teraflop desktops: Chemical modeling, symbolic algebra, and other packages that allow "computationally intensive operations" remotely.
  • Collaborative engineering: "High-bandwidth access to shared virtual spaces," allowing collaborative design of complex systems.
  • Distributed supercomputing: "Ultra-large virtual supercomputers constructed to solve problems too large to fit on any single computer."
  • Parameter studies: "Rapid, large-scale parametric studies, in which a single program is run many times in order to explore a multidimensional parameter space."

Turek, of IBM, describes the Grid as "the next evolutionary step forward on the Internet."

He adds:" This next step forward, through Grid, is to really take the Internet technology and use it to expand the notion of computing capability."

Turek explains the Grid by using an electrical utility metaphor, where people or businesses can use and pay for the Grid's computing power only when they need it, kind of like flipping the light switch in your living room. The e-utility Grid could provide one-time computational power to individual users, and it would recognize what kind of service you're looking for and how to accomplish the task.

While universities have long pooled their resources in Grids to "create giant virtual supercomputers," interest in the Grid concept in Europe has focused on creating virtual organizations that tie together several businesses working together on a short-term project, Turek says.

While the Grid concept has been around for ages, at least on Internet time, Turek says the time is right for the concept to take off. The availability of high bandwidth and wide-spread Internet access help make Grids more doable, he says.

"All breakthroughs in our industry have really started as small things," he adds. "As time as progressed, and they've been given the opportunity to grow and flourish, they've demonstrated a capability that more and more people start to recognize is important. The fact that people have been working on Globus for five years is now getting it to a point that people are now saying, 'Yes, this is possible.' "


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