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What is a grid?

Learn: A crash course in grid computing


Grid computing is not only providing scientists with the computing power to push the limits of their science, it is also fueling all-new levels of international scientific collaboration.

Read this for the basics on the grids that power myriad scientific discoveries of today and tomorrow.

What is a grid?

Grid computing is a way of connecting computing resources to share their computing power. Computer grids allow access to computing resources from many different locations, just as the World Wide Web allows access to information. These computing resources include data storage capacity, computing power, sensors, visualization tools and much, much more. Using a grid, someone sitting at one computer can harness the combined capabilities of hundreds and thousands of computers, providing researchers with the extra power to make faster progress in their work.

How do grids work?

Grids use networks to link the computing resources of many different computers. The cyber-glue that binds all of these resources together is called "middleware." There are many different types of middleware, developed for many different types of grid. Middleware does all the work to connect users' jobs to computing resources, thereby hiding the grid's complexity from the user.

Why do grids matter?

Grids allow you to combine the resources of hundreds of computers to create a massively powerful, fully comprehensive computing resource, all accessible from the comfort of your own personal computer. For scientists trying to solve extremely complex problems, this resource provides the power to help solve some huge questions: What happened just after the Big Bang? How will global warming affect our lives in the future? Is there a cure for malaria or cancer? Grids can help researchers find answers to these questions. Grids also speed things up: a simulation that might take weeks on a single PC can run in hours on a grid. This means grids can react quickly to changing needs: a tremendous resource for crisis situations like natural disasters or epidemics.

Why call them grids?

The idea is that in the future, plugging into a computing grid will be as simple as plugging into an electrical grid. And, like an electrical grid, users will simply plug in and use as much computing power as they need, without knowing where it comes from or how it was produced; you will simply plug in and use as much as you need.

How are grids different from the Internet?

The Internet is the foundation upon which grids are built. Similarly, the World Wide Web is also constructed on top of existing Internet infrastructure.

What is the grid?

There is no single grid. Instead, there are many grids, created by groups of people who want to share their resources to increase their individual access to these resources. Some grids may contain only ten or twenty computers; others comprise many thousands. Some use supercomputers, others combine the might of a myriad ordinary PCs.

What are the challenges of grid computing?

There are quite a few. Technical challenges include working out how to distribute resources, locate and fix problems, allocate jobs to the grid, and coordinate all the different middleware used to cyber-glue these grids together.

And there are social challenges too: Who should be allowed to use each grid? Whose job should get priority in the queue to use grid power? What is the best way to protect user security? How will users pay for grid usage?

So why bother with grid computing?

Grid computing isn't simple, but its potential is mind-boggling. The development of grid computing is a major milestone in the progress of computing.

By providing the technology to transform the world's computing resources into seamless computing powerhouses, grids promise to help communities across the globe in their quest for improved knowledge of our planet and our universe, which means boons for our heath, environment, and future.

And because grids don't work without people, the development of computing grids also develops communities. Grids require people from different countries and cultures to work together to solve problems.

How do I get involved?

Sign up for a DigSci account or subscribe to our weekly email! Check out who's doing what, and then contact them. Learn how to run your own application on a grid. Be part of growing a technology that is changing the way science happens.

I want more!

Want to extend your knowledge beyond the basics? Check out these great introductions to grid:

I have more!

Do you know of a great grid computing resource or Web site? Send us your recommended links so we can spread the word.

- Cristy Burne

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