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Beating gridlock

tech reviews Updated: Dec 05, 2009 20:31 IST
Prasanto K Roy

Amidst the wild storyline of Angels & Demons are hidden some glimpses of reality. Dan Brown’s thriller introduced the world to antimatter and half-baked nuclear physics, but also to one of the most amazing places on earth.

CERN (French for “European Organization for Nuclear Research”) is the world’s largest particle physics lab, spread across the Franco-Swiss border. Its 8,000 scientists and engineers include Nobel laureates and hail from 80 countries. This is where the World Wide Web was invented by Tim Berners Lee, as a way of letting scientists share information across networks. And that is where the next big thing since the Web is happening: the Grid. The future of the Internet.
Once again, it’s a by-product, a network with the modest aim of sharing and processing data from the biggest machine on earth, the Large Hadron Collider. The LHC will spew out volumes of data every second that has to be shared in real time with scientists across the world – impossible on today’s Internet.

Enter the Grid, a global network 10,000 times faster. Like the Internet, it’s a growing organism. Unlike the Internet’s motley collection of hardware and connections, the Grid uses thousands of high-performance computers connected by fast fiber-optic networks. Last April, the Grid was used in the fight against the avian flu virus. Six European and Asian labs analysed 300,000 chemical compounds looking for potential drugs. Over 2,000 computers were linked together around the world, thanks to CERN’s grid design and software, and helped identify the likely compounds to inhibit the N1 enzyme in the virus. In just a month, the Grid did the work of a very powerful computer running for 100 years. But first, the experiment that needed the Grid to be invented: the LHC.

It’s the world’s largest particle accelerator. The LHC uses a 27 km ring-shaped tunnel, and a second, smaller ring, both buried deep under the surface (away from interference by cosmic ray particles). Some 9,300 magnets accelerate the particles, and it’s also the world’s largest fridge, cooling the magnets to below -271°C – colder than outer space. But when the particles collide, they generate temperatures over 100,000 times hotter than the core of the sun! At full power, trillions of hadrons (protons or ions) race around the giant ring, 11,245 times a second, at 99.99 per cent the speed of light – with head-on collisions 600 million times every second. To avoid bumping gas molecules, the entire ring is kept at a vacuum, ten times less than the pressure on the moon’s surface. The particles are so tiny that making them collide is like firing two needles from two places, 10 km apart, with such precision that they meet halfway.

Each LHC experiment will generate enough information to fill 100,000 dual-layer DVDs every year. That’s 15 petabytes a year, about one-hundredth of all the digital information produced annually on the planet. Put into CDs, the disks would stack up 20 km high. How do you get this volume of data to thousands of scientists working on the analysis worldwide, including in India? Answer: The Grid.

The Internet shares information; the Grid will share computing power and storage, through thousands of connected computers. Ever found something really slow on your computer? Now imagine if you could ‘submit the job’ to the computers on a network, perhaps even across your city block. That’s what the CERN Grid does – planetwide. Scientists can log on to the Grid from their PC, and their work is carried out quickly by many machines across the planet. This lets them carry out complex calculations quickly.

Actually, there are two grids. The first is the LHC Computing Grid, dedicated to working for the LHC. The second, co-funded by the European Commission, is the EGEE – Enabling Grids for E-sciencE. EGEE is already in use, with 20,000 computers in 200 sites across the world – running 30,000 jobs a day, and growing. It’s used for biomedical science, drug research, astrophysics. It was EGEE that was used for the avian flu project.

CERN is hoping its $5 billion investment will recreate the conditions of the Big Bang – so that physicists can discover how the universe was born. Will it? The jury is out on that. But the spinoff is very real. The Web emerged from CERN and changed the world. Its successor is promising to do that again.

The author, a physics graduate from St. Stephen’s College, is chief editor at CyberMedia, publisher of 15 specialty titles such as Dataquest.