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Opinion - South Africa grid: a view from the coordinator's chair

Feature - SAGrid: A view from the coordinator's chair

SEACOM is a 1.28Tbps, 15,000 kilometer-long undersea fiber-optic cable system that will provide high-speed communication between East Africa, South Asia and Europe. As of press time, its promoters expect the system to be up and running in less than three weeks.
Image courtesy SEACOM

Bruce Becker of the Meraka Institute in Pretoria is the Coordinator for planning the upcoming South Africa Grid initiative - which will draw upon the resources of South Africa's Center for High Performance Computing and the country's high-speed network, SANREN. Here, he gives an update of the status of the project.

After over a year of training sessions and technical workshops in multiple countries, preparations are under way for a move to full production readiness of the South Africa Grid, or SAGrid.

The testing and incubation phase is coming to an end; the high-speed national research network SANREN is under way and already active at several sites; and the international bandwidth available to South African universities will increase dramatically when the SEACOM fiber optic cable up the African East Coast comes online. At the same time, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research's Computing Center has also recently undergone a major upgrade, more than doubling the computing capacity at that site.

Meanwhile, users and site administrators have been acquiring the technical skills and know-how necessary to deploy and operate a national production grid infrastructure, with the help of training provided by members and facilities of the dedicated EGEE training infrastructure and GILDA (Grid INFN Laboratory for Dissemination Activities), as well as the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN) Section of Catania, and the COMETA Consortium.

Most recently, a joint technical workshop was held from June 8 - 19 in Catania, Italy, for technical experts from some of the institutes comprising the SAGrid. There were representatives from the University of Johannesburg (UJ), the University of Cape Town (UCT), and North West University (NWU). For the first time, members of SANREN attended. Training covered in-depth usage of grid middleware, as well as specific case studies at these sites.

A simplified view of South Africa's high-speed network, known as SANREN. (Click image to enlarge.) Image courtesy Meraka Institute

The near-future

The event was also an opportunity to decide who will provide what services. The University of Cape Town IT Department will host the so-called 'core services' which provide the global information index of grid services, the logical file catalog for data management, and the crucial workload management system which matches requests between users and distributed computing resources. NWU will host a large HPC facility; similar-sized clusters will be available at UJ and the University of the Free State (UFS).

UFS is also a pre-production and testing environment, where all testing procedures are performed prior to site deployment, and reference configurations for other sites are defined. During the meeting, several brainstorming sessions were held to address issues of global integration, coherent site and service monitoring, and standard operations procedures. One of the more important discussions for this phase was the development of a "Startup How-To" guide for site deployment, which draws not only on the EGEE experience but also from the specific experience of South African sites involved so far.

A combined operations model for interoperability between the sites and the national cyberinfrastructure is under development, which will allow for smoother collaboration at a technical level, thereby providing users with a single, efficient support structure.

South African researchers are eagerly awaiting the deployment of the SAGrid's services, in order to better participate in major scientific experiments. A partial list of examples includes two LHC experiments: UJ physicists anticipate more easily contributing to the ATLAS experiment, and physicists at iThemba LABS in Cape Town look forward to the same with the ALICE experiment. Some others who plan to use the facilities of the SAGrid include researchers from UCT, who wish to take part in projects such as WISDOM and e-NMR (e-Infrastructure of the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance), among others.

-Bruce Becker for iSGTW. More about SAGrid can be found at its website. See also the 18 February 2009 iSGTW story, Blue Gene for Africa.

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