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RealTime IT News

Getting on the Grid

With a whiff of bravado and a touch of retro, IBM has announced an approach to networked computing that could dramatically alter how corporations allocate computing resources for large-scale projects.

The current network model prevalent in the corporate world is to distribute resources as needed, combining desktop power with servers for specific functions, such as printing or Web serving. For users, their main computing power sits on their personal machine. Larger-scale projects will tend to centralize resources on a mainframe or a supercomputer.

What IBM has announced treats computing power less as a function of the local machine and more as a function of the extended network. IBM uses the analogy of an electrical grid to describe its plan. When you plug in your refrigerator, you don't need to worry about the electrical generators that create the electricity. Similarly, if you need loads of computing power, you should be able to tap into those resources without worrying about how those resources are generated. Simply plug into the grid and compute away.

Remotely Deja Vu
Now, for those who remember playing The Oregon Trail over a teletype machine, the idea of transparently tapping remote computing resources may not sound all that new. The notion of a grid-based virtual-computing system have been floating around the supercomputer world for years now. And distributed-computing schemes are not new, either: witness the SETI@Home program, which uses unused CPU cycles on networked machines to search for life on other planets.

"Grid computing presents the next big evolutionary leap for the Internet," says David Turek, IBM vice president for Linux Emerging Technologies. "If we think of the Internet today, we think of mail, instant messaging, and Web serving -- it's wonderful for content distribution. Grids really extend the notion of virtual computing substantially, as they unite far-flung computing resources and craft a virtual computing environment."

This uniting is already underway, as IBM has already won a contract from the British government to provide key technologies within the "National Grid," a massive network of computers distributed throughout the United Kingdom. IBM is building a Grid system at Oxford University, where it will used to store and process high-energy physics data. The grid will be connected to the U.S. Particle Physics Laboratory in Chicago and the new Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland.

Once the Grid is complete, scientists all around the United Kingdom will be able to access data to collaborate remotely on CERN projects. For example, using the National Grid, scientists in a lab in Cambridge will be able to run sophisticated high-energy physics applications on computers in Belfast.

IBM is tackling a similar project in the Netherlands. In addition, IBM Research built its own Grid -- a geographically distributed supercomputer linking IBM research and development labs in the United States, Israel, Switzerland, and Japan.