Grid network project takes off

Ottawa’s Canarie Inc., Canada’s advanced Internet development organization, has been tapped to design the infrastructure for a new international network linking members of the world’s high-energy physics community.

The new “application grid” will be used to support the sharing of vast amounts of data emanating from four projects that will explore the fundamental forces of nature and the structure of the universe.

In the U.S., the project is being funded to the tune of US$11.9 million from the country’s National Science Foundation, and 16 universities will be connected. At least four Canadian schools are also said to be looking into joining the Grid Physics Network, or GriPhyN.

So-called “access grids” connecting major research and development institutions have been around for at least the past five years. However, Tom DeFanti, who is working on GriPhyN for the University of Illinois in Chicago, said

those networks have been limited by the throughput speeds available on even the United States’ high speed Internet-2 backbone, which operates at 622Mbps. The problem is two-fold, he said: one is that the information generated by many institutions’ supercomputers is massive, almost in the petabyte levels; and two, there may be thousands of users stuck sharing the Internet-2 pipeline.

“You want your networks very lightly loaded,” he said. “It’s like going out for a drive on a Sunday afternoon. You’d really prefer there wasn’t a car 30 feet in front of you the whole day.”

Canarie’s solution for GriPhyN is similar to the dedicated metropolitan area network they are a member of in Ottawa.

“(Application grid) is a fancy word, really, for a virtual private network that supports a specific application,” said Bill St. Arnaud, senior director of network projects for Canarie.

St. Arnaud said Canarie has become involved with GriPhyN because, “nobody yet has the technology to supply the abilities so that a researcher in Switzerland can set up an optical path to carry huge volumes of data all the way to, say, Chicago. We’re developing that technology here at Canarie, which we then hope the commercial sector will adopt and market.”

St. Arnaud said he sees opportunities for major vendors such as Nortel to develop this technology, but the timing is dependent on when access grids that operate on these massive, high-speed VPNs find their own commercial niche.

So far, sophisticated computing grids have been limited to educational and scientific fields.

For example, the Neptune grid in the Pacific Ocean is a 6,000-km undersea dark fibre network operating off the coast of Vancouver and the state of Washington. Neptune is described as a sensor grid because the nodes connected to the network are made up of cameras, data sensors and robotic submarines that collect seismology, environmental and biological data.

However, St. Arnaud said commercial opportunities may exist for companies looking at developing extensive CRM (customer relationship management) solutions.

“Data mining is a big application in the commercial world,” St. Arnaud said. “And there’s already talk of commercial grids and peer-to-peer networking, so that companies will have, you know, a (credit card) database and then there’ll be a supercomputer to mine that data to look for marketing information and so forth.”

He said Canada’s pharmaceutical industry is also developing computational grids because they can leverage the power of every node on the network.

“They can get 11,000 computers acting as if they’re humans, and they can do large simulations of physiological reactions to new drug types,” he related.

For the time being, though, DeFanti said he expects users of application grids to be limited to federally funded institutions like universities, who are willing to help work out the bugs in new technology before the commercial world adopts it.

“At one point, countries would have a national airline because you somehow needed someone to start the process along of having an airline,” he said. “Then eventually it gets privatized. I think it will be a natural and gradual evolution, but gradual in (the networking) business is months.”