Many of us may remember sneaker nets (sharing files using floppies distributed around the office), and most of us have used local area networks and electronically shared files. If you’re reading this newsletter, you’re using the Internet, a global network that distributes files (webpages, binary file transfers, and peer-to-peer file sharing). However, until recently, the distribution of data on each of these networks were manually controlled, the users choosing which files to distribute, the networks serving only as transmission media for data that are processed by individual users, separated from one another.
The future of networks, especially the Internet, is called “grid computing,” also called distributed computing which enables multiple computers to process separate portions of data, combining the individually-processed elements into a finished product. The best known distributed computing project is SETI@home, a project organized by the University of California at Berkeley and The Planetary Society to evaluate radio signals collected at the Arecibo radio telescope for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence.
Other grids exist, 1) a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) project, called the Science Grid that connects its geographically dispersed laboratories, 2) U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Information Power Grid. Both of these Grid networks harness the combined power of multiple, small computers to emulate the power of a single, powerful computer.
Grids can be much more than the SETI@home, DOE, and NASA projects, especially when thought of as a worldwide system, the Grid. Interconnected computers potentially offer the power of a supercomputer to authorized users. Grid subscribers allow their computers to be part of a large computer project. Subscribers install a software application that downloads a small chunk of data to be processed offline and then later uploaded to the host computer where the chunks are combined into a finished data project. Subscribers probably won’t notice a degradation in their computer’s performance because the application only processes their chunk of data when the their processor would have been idle. Most computer CPUs (central processing units) remain in a near-idle state because they are waiting for additional human input or they are sitting idle while the user is away from the system.
The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), an early benefactor of the Internet, is pressing for significant enhancements to the nation’s cyberinfrastructure to create the Grid. Using the Internet as the transmission medium, the NSF foresees the Grid’s ability to process complex medical, mathematical, and scientific applications. In short, the Internet lets users communicate, the Grid lets users work together.
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