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Small bang, big gifts

The world’s costliest experiment — the Large Hadron Collider — is supposed to provide answers to our existence. But apart from the big answers, the $10-billion project is also getting us everyday spin-offs, reports Prakash Chandra.

world Updated: Dec 27, 2008 21:13 IST
Prakash Chandra

The Worldwide Web, or www, was born at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) on December 25, 1990, when Tim Berners Lee announced an incredibly easy way to access academic information. And the rest is of course, history.

Today we are at a point where people stood then — the way we think and communicate about to be changed by the atom-smashing super-tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) 300 feet below the French-Swiss border.

The LHC experiments will produce 600 million proton collisions per second. This adds up to 15 million Gigabytes of data produced each year, which would take more than 20 million CDs to store. Put another way, the data recorded during the ten-odd years of LHC operations will exceed all the words ever spoken by mankind! Crunching this staggering amount of data calls for computing power equivalent to more than 100,000 of today’s fastest processors. So scientists have built a global network of computer clusters, linked by ultra-high speed connections which form a gigantic virtual computing service: the LHC Grid. The system connects millions of processors worldwide, enabling them to perform up to 11 trillion operations per second.

The Grid will not just boast of seamless access to information like the Internet, but also be a global computation system that seamlessly computes power and data storage distributed across the globe. Universities, labs and research centres make up the three-tiered system of “nodes” in this new age Grid, each chipping in with a share of its computing resources. In return, they will be able to analyse LHC collision data and try to hunt down the elusive Higgs boson on their own. CERN sits at the core, sieving data and sending it to the labs of Tier One, and onwards to Tier Two centres in 35 countries. In India, there are three such centres. Eventually this will lead to a system that supplies on-demand computing capacity anywhere.

Using the Grid, you could actually let the system determine the task to be done and the processing power required. The Grid then checks for availability of computational resources, completes the task and flashes the result, without you even moving. Experts, however, caution that desktops and PCs will still be around for a while. But even then, such unprecedented scaling of technology could usher in dramatic developments in realms that bank on data-intensive calculations like drug design, automobile simulation, and the compression and expansion of very heavy data files. This could change the way almost everything — from education to earthquake prediction and imaging — works.

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