Technology - "Grid in a Box" makes virtual grids a piece of cake
Creating a cake became much easier in the late 40s when Betty Crocker released cake mix in a box.
Do you ever wish there was an equivalent for computing grids? Now there is, almost.
An approach known as "grid in a box" is making it possible to gather all the ingredients required to make grid computing more affordable and accessible for participating grid centers.
"The idea of 'grid in a box' is to put all needed grid services on one piece of hardware," says Oliver Oberst, Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe. "Instead of having several machines working together to host the infrastructure of a grid site, there are several virtual machines working on one computer-the 'box.'"
Traditionally, building a grid site with gLite-the middleware designed by Enabling Grids for E-sciencE and used predominately in Europe-required multiple different grid services to be installed, each on a different machine.
Just as box cake mix is not right for all occasions, "grid in a box" has its own advantages and drawbacks. It's a much cheaper way for institutions to set up a grid infrastructure, especially those institutions who want to harvest unused computing cycles, are hesitant to buy a lot of new hardware and don't need to be overly particular about performance.
"Grid in a box" is not a "real" grid in a strict sense, but that is not necessarily a drawback.
"Often in a traditional grid the machines are idle or not fully loaded. Splitting one machine in to many is a way to put those resources to work," says Armin Scheurer, of the University of Karlsruhe.
Virtual machines ease administration
The basis for this technology, "virtualization," is a means for abstracting resources so they are hidden from other resources on the same computer. Users can create separate "virtual machines" that work together as if they were independent entities.
"I use this technology on my personal laptop," says Volker Büge of Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe.
Büge uses a Windows operating system for normal office work, but needs to use Linux in his research. Thanks to virtualization he can switch between the two operating systems without rebooting.
"It's like I have two different computers," he says. "Each virtual machine is completely separate from the other; they even have different IP addresses. If one becomes infected by a virus, the other doesn't know."
Grid school in a box
"Grid in a box" enjoys much success at grid schools, where it provides a simplified, affordable and flexible training and testing environment, says Scheurer, who along with Büge and Oberst was a lecturer at this summer's Gridka School.
Gridka School is one of Europe's largest grid schools and was held last month in Karlsruhe, Germany, where it used the "grid in a box" approach for the third year in a row.
"Installing a grid site used to be very hard work-each machine required a lot of attention and mistakes were difficult to fix," says Büge. "We would never go back to the old way."
In the past grid schools had to buy five computers for each group installing a grid site. Now they can buy one. When a student runs into a hairy problem, the machine can simply be rebooted and returned to its starting point, which saves hours of troubleshooting with multiple machines.
"Now it is possible for students to install a grid site in a single afternoon," says Oberst. "It simplifies a complicated process. For small to mid-sized institutions, I think this is the way of the future."
- Danielle Venton, EGEE