Plug and play: Power computing grids
- By Paula Shaki Trimble
- Nov 05, 2000
NSF's Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation program
The electric power grid is a commonly accepted technology: Plug an appliance
into any wall outlet and you get electricity from the collective generators
in the power grid.
The power grid is the model for new federal projects that will help
scientists and engineers share research tools and use supercomputing resources
from remote locations. Companies such as Boeing Co. are already using computer
grid technology to connect employees right from their desktops to resources
anywhere else in the company.
The National Science Foundation awarded two grants this fall to begin
developing computer grids that would enable researchers at distributed institutions
to control experiments remotely and access supercomputers to analyze experimental
The goal is to create a "computational utility," said Steve Goldstein,
senior adviser for information technology in NSF's Engineering Directorate.
Just as people give little thought to the source of electricity in their
houses, "when you log onto this grid or metacomputer, you don't care where
[the data is] coming from," Goldstein said.
NSF awarded a $300,000 grant to the University of Illinois at Urbana-
Champaign in early September to lead a national partnership of research
centers in planning and designing the NEESgrid, a national virtual laboratory
for earthquake engineering that is part of NSF's Network for Earthquake
Engineering Simulation (NEES) project.
NSF also awarded an $11.9 million grant to the University of Florida
and the University of Chicago to lay the groundwork for a computer data
grid called the Grid Physics Network, or GriPhyN (pronounced griffin), as
part of its long-term Information Technology Research program.
Other federal agencies, including NASA, the Defense Department and the
Energy Department, are sponsoring computer grid research as well as working
to develop standards for grid development and use. The fifth Grid Forum
workshop met Oct. 15 to 18 in Boston to bring together international industry
and government representatives who are trying to create common practices
for building grids.
For instance, the NEES-grid will connect 20 to 25 institutions that
have earthquake engineering testing equipment, Goldstein said. The initial
grant could lead to a $10 million grant for the integration and building
of the NEESgrid in what Goldstein envisions as an $80 million program to
upgrade the sites and create the grid.
"The idea is to network these sites... into a national collaboratory
using the latest in high-speed networks," he said.
The University of Illinois National Center for Supercomputing Applications
is working with the Energy Department's Argonne National Laboratory; the
Collaboratory for Research on Electronic Work at the University of Michigan;
the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California;
the Mid-America Earthquake Center at the University of Illinois; and the
civil engineering departments at the Illinois and California universities.
The ultimate goal of the grid is to improve the design of buildings
and utilities so they can stand up to the trauma of earthquakes. Researchers
at colleges, universities and national labs use tools such as models of
buildings and shake them on "shake tables" to simulate the effects of earthquakes.
They then study the joints and other support areas to see how buildings
could be better designed.
Other academic researchers employ centrifuges similar to those used
to train astronauts to test structures in soil, or they build reaction walls
to test different types of materials in earthquake conditions.
"Eventually, what we really want to do is shift toward numerical simulation,
the seamless capability to do testing that involves physical testing and
numerical simulation," Goldstein said. Using the grid, researchers could
feed laboratory test results into a computer simulation that is running
on a supercomputer, he said. Through the grid, researchers could also access
other experiment results, regardless of where they reside.
Or the scenario can be flipped, said Ian Foster, a computer science
professor at the University of Chicago and associate director of the Mathematics
and Computer Science Division at Argonne National Laboratory.
"The community would like to have a simulation of a seismic event running
on a supercomputer and use it to run a shake table," he said. "The NEESgrid
proj-ect is breaking ground in taking on a new community and connecting
The NEESgrid also will allow others to tune in to observe tests and
review real-time data from their desktops and will also facilitate the creation
of chat rooms, Goldstein said. The NEESgrid should be operational in 2004
and will gradually add enhancements such as audio and videoconferencing.
The other NSF project, GriPhyN, is the largest grant in the $90 million
IT Research program for 2000. GriPhyN will pool all the resources of a physics
collaboration into a single vast computing and storage system. Scientists
anticipate research conducted through GriPhyN could produce data that can
be measured in petabytes, each of which is equal to a quadrillion bytes.
Foster, who is the GriPhyN project co-leader, compares it to the popular
music-sharing Web site Napster, but in this case the "songs" are crucial
insights into the nature of the universe. In the same way that Napster facilitates
the sharing of existing resources, GriPhyN will help scientists avoid duplicating
efforts by allowing them to find and use calculations already completed
by other researchers for their own research.
Foster is also co-leader of the Globus Project (www.globus.org), a research
and development group that is looking at the security, communications, resource
management, quality of service, and programming methodologies and tools
needed to advance grid computing.
The Globus Toolkit provides standard software, or middleware, that can
be used to support grids such as NEESgrid and GriPhyN, Foster said. Since
1995, Globus has developed a number of services to tie together resources
on a national scale, he said.
Users of the Globus Toolkit and services include NSF's Partnership
for Advanced Computational Infrastructure, led by the University of Illinois,
which is helping build the National Technology Grid, and NASA's Information
Power Grid, based at Ames Research Center, which connects science and engineering
work at the 10 NASA centers, Foster said.
What is the grid?
The term "grid" refers to an emerging infrastructure that enables the
integrated use of remote high-end computers, databases, scientific instruments,
networks and other resources.
Grid applications often involve large amounts of data and/or computing
and are not easily handled by today's Internet and Web infrastructures.
Essentially, grid computing brings the capabilities of a centralized super-computer
to a desktop at a remote site, much like the electric power grid brings
power to any wall socket from the collective generators in the grid.