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10 Emerging Technologies That Will Change the World

(Page 6 of 11)

Grid Computing

In the 1980s "internetworking protocols" allowed us to link any two computers, and a vast network of networks called the Internet exploded around the globe. In the 1990s the "hypertext transfer protocol" allowed us to link any two documents, and a vast, online library-cum-shoppingmall called the World Wide Web exploded across the Internet. Now, fast emerging "grid protocols" might allow us to link almost anything else: databases, simulation and visualization tools, even the number-crunching power of the computers themselves. And we might soon find ourselves in the midst of the biggest explosion yet.

"We're moving into a future in which the location of [computational] resources doesn't really matter," says Argonne National Laboratory's Ian Foster. Foster and Carl Kesselman of the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute pioneered this concept, which they call grid computing in analogy to the electric grid, and built a community to support it. Foster and Kesselman, along with Argonne's Steven Tuecke, have led development of the Globus Toolkit, an open-source implementation of grid protocols that has become the de facto standard. Such protocols promise to give home and office machines the ability to reach into cyberspace, find resources wherever they may be, and assemble them on the fly into whatever applications are needed.

Imagine, says Kesselman, that you're the head of an emergency response team that's trying to deal with a major chemical spill. "You'll probably want to know things like, What chemicals are involved? What's the weather forecast, and how will that affect the pattern of dispersal? What's the current traffic situation, and how will that affect the evacuation routes?" If you tried to find answers on today's Internet, says Kesselman, you'd get bogged down in arcane log-in procedures and incompatible software. But with grid computing it would be easy: the grid protocols provide standard mechanisms for discovering, accessing, and invoking just about any online resource, simultaneously building in all the requisite safeguards for security and authentication.

Construction is under way on dozens of distributed grid computers around the world-virtually all of them employing Globus Toolkit. They'll have unprecedented computing power and applications ranging from genetics to particle physics to earthquake engineering. The $88 million TeraGrid of the U.S. National Science Foundation will be one of the largest. When it's completed later this year, the general-purpose, distributed supercomputer will be capable of some 21 trillion floating-point operations per second, making it one of the fastest computational systems on Earth. And grid computing is experiencing an upsurge of support from industry heavyweights such as IBM, Sun Microsystems, and Microsoft. IBM, which is a primary partner in the TeraGrid and several other grid projects, is beginning to market an enhanced commercial version of the Globus Toolkit.

Out of Foster and Kesselman's work on protocols and standards, which began in 1995, "this entire grid movement emerged," says Larry Smarr, director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. What's more, Smarr and others say, Foster and Kesselman have been instrumental in building a community around grid computing and in advocating its integration with two related approaches: peer-to-peer computing, which brings to bear the power of idle desktop computers on big problems in the manner made famous by SETI@home, and Web services, in which access to far-flung computational resources is provided through enhancements to the Web's hypertext protocol. By helping to merge these three powerful movements, Foster and Kesselman are bringing the grid revolution much closer to reality. And that could mean seamless and ubiquitous access to unfathomable computer power. - M. Mitchell Waldrop

Others in
GRID COMPUTING
RESEARCHER PROJECT Andrew Chien
Entropia Peer-to-Peer Working Group Andrew Grimshaw
Avaki; U. Virginia Commercial grid software Miron Livny
U. Wisconsin, Madison Open-source system to harness idle workstations Steven Tuecke
Argonne National Laboratory Globus Toolkit

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