Plug and play: Power computing grids

NSF's Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation program

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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

large instruments."

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 (, 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.


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