UK e-science centre pushes grid computing

A £5.5m facility based at the University of Edinburgh will act as a focal point for research into distributed supercomputing projects

The UK government on Thursday officially opened the National e-Science Centre (NeSC), devoting £5.5m over the next three years to boosting the UK's role in grid computing. The centre is part of an international effort to enable scientific researchers to take advantage of the computing power distributed across the globe.

The centre, based at the University of Edinburgh and jointly run with the University of Glasgow, is intended as a focal point for the UK's eight regional e-Science Centres, in Oxford, London, Cambridge and other locations, as well as engaging with grid activities in other countries. Among its activities, the centre will host the Fifth Global Grid Forum and the eleventh IEEE conference on High Performance Distributed Computing in July.

The government believes that research is increasingly shifting toward the use of high-speed networking technologies and distributed computing power, and wants the UK to stay at the cutting edge of this emerging field. "In the years to come, when scientists are working with globally distributed data sets, e-science will change the way science is undertaken in our country," said the chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, who opened the centre.

The scientific community has been collaborating using Internet technologies for years, but such efforts have been sporadic and unreliable. "These efforts didn't scale, and they needed several smart graduate students to keep them running," said David Williams, senior scientist with the IT division of CERN, the Geneva-based European nuclear research centre.

The grid is the most recent effort to make it possible for researchers around the world to make use of the data and processing power of other scientific facilities, regardless of where they are located in the physical world. Ideally, researchers will be able to request existing research or computing power and get an immediate response, without having to think about where the data or computing facilities came from.

The technologies that emerge from grid computing are expected to filter down to businesses, just as the Web -- originally a CERN project -- became a mass medium. Companies like IBM, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard have been working to take grid computing into the business world.

"What scientists want to do now is collaborate globally, and not just sending attachments to emails," said Dr Mark Parsons, NeSC's commercial director. "This is just the problem that businesses have. If you build a building, it's not just one company that does it, it's many different organisations that collaborate. In the future they will be using grid technology, even if they don't call it that."

Driving the process has been the construction of CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC), expected to be turned on in 2006 or 2007, at which time it will begin producing more data than any one organisation can reasonably hope to cope with.

Many of the government initiatives around grid computing, such as the European Data Grid, are concentrated on developing the software that will be necessary for distributing the data from the LHC to computers around the world. The US is a partner in the LHC.

Scientists have dreamt of grid-style collaboration for a long time, but this time networks have become reliable enough to make it a reality, according to the NeSC's Parsons. "This time it might just work," he said.

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