Portals could lower grid barriers

A project intended to make computing grids easier to use is the largest of 20 initiatives that the National Science Foundation has funded — to the tune of $9 million.

The objective of grid technology is to coordinate large-scale resource sharing, making it possible for users in one group to access computers, networks, databases and scientific instruments housed in far-flung organizations. Scientific and technical computing is the target of grid research and development.

NSF made its grid awards last month under its NSF Middleware Initiative (NMI). Launched in 2001, NMI aims to simplify access to Internet-based resources. In keeping with that directive, the largest of the new awards is designed to boost the usability of grid software and "bring it closer to the Web-interface level," said Kevin Thompson, NSF program officer.

That award will focus on the development of grid portal technology. Its creation is significant in that standard grid client environments are typically command-line driven, according to Marlon Pierce, a research scientist and project leader with Indiana University's Pervasive Technology Labs. The university leads the Open Grids Computing Environment consortium, which is undertaking the grid portal development project. The consortium also includes the University of Michigan, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, the Texas Advanced Computing Center and the University of Chicago.

Although command line-based interfaces are designed for power users and have a steep learning curve, portals "provide better introductory environments," Pierce said. "They are general-purpose tools on which [the portal builders] may build tools geared toward specific user groups and science applications."

Another objective of the development project is to construct a reusable set of portal components, or portlets. With such a repository, developers could select a portlet representing a given grid service, such as GridFTP. "They won't have to worry about how GridFTP works," Thompson said. Instead, developers can "grab a portlet...and plug it in," he added.

One aspect of portal development that may be of general interest to federal information technology managers is a community portal that will represent a working model of the consortium's software. "This is intended to both demonstrate the capabilities of the system and to foster collaboration in the portal-building community," Pierce said.

A.J. Dennis, a research director with the Sageza Group Inc., said portal development holds promise, but cautioned that grid portals, and grid computing in general, is in its infancy. "We are right at step one," he said.

Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.


Grid work

The National Science Foundation is making grid computing easier to use through its middleware initiative.

Launched: 2001.

Objective: Simplify access to Internet information and services.

Current projects: Grid portals, tools for grid-based databases and grid middleware architecture for the integration of scientific instruments, among others.

Latest round of funding: $9 million.


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