Grid Computing: Fulfilling the Promise of the Internet

The promise of grid computing -- of Web-based services providing universal access to information and computing in a collaborative environment -- is as real as it is seductive. In fact, it's only fitting that the Internet, born out of a vision of collaboration, should now come full circle to fulfill that vision.
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This year marks the 30th anniversary of the birth of the Internet, which originally linked universities and laboratories around the United States as an outgrowth of a Defense Department project begun in 1969.

How the baby has grown! The Internet began to expand from its inception, and with the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1989, it is becoming ubiquitous. It will be as much a part of people's lives as the radio, television, and telephone -- all of which will no doubt reside on the Internet in the not-too-distant future.

The Internet's explosive growth has been fueled by a single factor: open standards -- an agreement upon a common set of "protocols" enabling computers to communicate with one another. Standards also brought Internet mail into existence, which has had an incalculable impact upon the way we communicate with each other. And yet another set of standards created the Web, which has allowed everyone with a computer to trade information.

It did not take long for business to see the potential of the Internet. Today you'd be hard-pressed to find a company that does not use the Internet for emailing sales information to customers, or displaying Website "showrooms," or integrating sales and supply-chain activities in order to maintain optimal inventory levels.

As exciting as the Internet's past 30 years have been, they're only a shadow of what's to come. We're already catching glimpses of the future in projects sponsored by universities and pharmaceutical research labs. By downloading a special screen saver, we can allow our personal computers to hook into a worldwide network when we're not using the machines. Together, this network processes information as part of the search to find cures for cancer, HIV, and, most recently, smallpox -- processing that would take an individual computer weeks or months, but can be done in days through this voluntary "grid."

In a somewhat different form, grid computing -- a Web-based operation that will allow companies to share computing resources on demand -- is where we're headed. Simply put, grid computing uses more of a server's computing power. Today's computers, like human brains, typically operate at only a small percentage of their capacity; they often sit idle as a processor waits for data. On the grid, the idle time of hundreds -- even thousands -- of servers can be harnessed by any customer needing a massive infusion of processing power.

Just as the electric grid provides power to the consumer, the computing grid distributes all sorts of computing resources to solve problems. In the process, a grid can give rise to "virtual organizations" -- ever-changing groups of individuals and institutions exploiting the resources of the grid for a variety of purposes, much the way that individuals in the same household exploit electricity for their own needs.

Grid computing is the logical, and desirable, outcome of several factors. First, the idle time inherent in computing means that by working on a grid, computers can share operations according to their abilities and unused capacities; thus, information will be processed with maximum efficiency. Second, the advent of broadband enables networked computers to share data constantly at high speeds -- critical to the functioning of any sophisticated network.

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