Feature - The sun never sets on the GreenStar Network
When the sun sets on the Communications Research Centre in Ottawa, Canada, the solar-powered computational jobs might be sent across the high-speed connection to the Cybera data center in Calgary, where it's still bright and sunny. And when the sun stops shining in Calgary, if the wind is blowing at the wind-powered BastionHost facility in Truro, Nova Scotia, then the jobs could be sent back east.
Most forms of renewable energy are not reliable - at any given location. But Canada's Green Star Network aims to demonstrate that by allowing the computations to follow the renewable energy across a large, fast network, the footprint of high-throughput computing can be drastically reduced.
"What we hope to explore at a high level is whether the concept has merit," said Martin Brooks, an independent research consultant working on the GSN; Brooks recently retired from the National Research Council's Institute for Information Technology.
If it is successful, said Brooks, the GSN will develop new methods for reducing the carbon footprint of computational resources, and develop a standard that will allow people to innovate in this area.
The advantages of GSN's approach go beyond those conferred by the use of renewable energy sources. Normally, once electricity is generated at large power plants, it must travel large distances via the power grid to reach the computers that power computational science. In the process, a great deal of power `is wasted, dissipated via the resistance of the power lines.
By using the energy where it is generated, the Green Star Network's data centers will also use less energy.
"There will probably be some applications that it's not appropriate to move, so there are some applications that are not appropriate for this sort of agile environment," Brooks said. "The kind of applications that we expect to field will include server structures of different kinds, web servers and other ordinary internet services like that, and we'll also include some computation intensive nodes."
"The key part of the project is the controller, that takes in information about computational load at each node and energy availability at each node and reallocates the computations to keep them running as the various nodes go up and down because of wind and solar variability," explained John Spence, a researcher emeritus at the Communications Research Centre Canada.
The controller will manage GSN's middleware, which leverages existing interoperability projects such as the Open Cloud Computing Interface and Network Service Interface. Interoperability is crucial to the GSN because international partnerships are crucial; in a network with nodes covering every time zone, the sun will always be shining somewhere.
The project is young, but making steady progress.
"The state of the system is that the individual nodes are coming up right now and being tested in isolation," Spence said. "The light path between the nodes is coming up, but we haven't gotten to the point of integrated operation of the nodes together across the light path. That will come in a time frame in the next six months."
Once it is up and running, the GeoChronos science gateway will be among the first to try it out.
"We're starting with one system which is an established research platform, as well as looking at the other types of applications. We don't yet know the degree to which we'll be able to host an unlimited number of third party applications," Spence said. "We don't yet know which other associate partners will join us and create a scaling effect that will allow us to host larger numbers and a more diverse body of applications. But we're open to that and encouraging third parties with us in order to be able to host more applications."
Ultimately, the GSN team aren't sure what they'll discover once the system is up and running. Will they be able to fully power the network using green power sources? Will the network and jobs be stable?
"This is a high-risk research project," said Martin, "where the outcome in terms of facilitating carbon reduction make it worth the risk of failure."
Reducing the ICT Sector's Carbon Footprint (pdf), by Andrew Mackarel, HEAnet Program Manager
-Miriam Boon, iSGTW