Alberta and B.C. put research on the grid

Alberta and British Columbia are embarking on a $30 million grid-computing project that will link the two province’s university research facilities.

The project, called WestGrid, will bind eight institutions across the two provinces, including the Universities of Alberta and Calgary, The Banff Centre, the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University.

A relatively new computing ideology, grid computing harnesses unused processing cycles of all computers in a network in order to complete tasks too intensive for any stand-alone machine. It runs on specialized software sitting on a common operating system.

Last month, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation allocated $12 million to the project and it is expected that the two provinces will also kick in to help fund the venture.

The undertaking will require four equipment purchases: a file system, a 25TB-disk system with robotic tape back-up, a cluster of at least one thousand connected processors and a large, secure memory processor (SMP), said Brian Unger, professor of computer science at the University of Calgary. The SMP, or clump, are units of four or eight processor machines tightly coupled in a fast interconnect, he added.

The genesis for the project began a year ago with a series of monthly meetings that took place in airports across western Canada.

“The first objective is to provide high-performance computing resources to 250 research facility members. In some sense it’s going to have to be a production system, (and) no matter where the resources are located, they’ll be accessing them from their laboratories or their desktops, and that’s where the grid computing comes in,” Unger said.

Part of the initiative, he added, is in the actual building of the grid itself.

With the project in its infancy, he said vendors have not been chosen yet, and will be only after undergoing a six-month selection process. Calgary-based Netera Alliance has already been chosen as the project administrator and will deal with business management.

And while the provinces appear to be facing a potentially tricky and labourious process, this isn’t necessarily the case, said another grid expert.

“It’s less challenging to implement than you think (because) it doesn’t require any hard wiring of computers,” said Ian Baird, chief business architect and corporate grid strategist for Markham, Ont.-based Platform Computing Inc., a Toronto-based grid-computing specialist. He added that while grid technology has existed for nearly a decade, it has only recently become mainstream in tech circles.

The challenges the project faces include security and finding common standards, an issue he said the entire grid industry is facing, and which is currently being addressed by the Global Grid Forum.

Interestingly, Baird said bandwidth availability presents both an obstacle and an opportunity, as organizations will likely increase bandwidth to send data, and companies will be able to do more with what they have through the clusters.

Geography is not an issue, since in theory grid computing is much like using the Internet – so long as there is a connection it can be accessed anywhere, Baird said.

Additional project information is available at

Platform Computing in Markham, Ont., can be contacted at