While I bemoan the fact that we don't have a BigMac computing cluster,
I'd settle for this, too.
November 10, 2003
Europe Exceeds U.S. in Refining Grid Computing
By JOHN MARKOFF and JENNIFER L. SCHENKER
hen the Swiss-based pharmaceutical giant Novartis needed a new
supercomputer for designing drugs, the company found it already had
one. It was hidden in the unused computing power the company had
available in the thousands of PC's that were already being used in its
Novartis used American software technology to harness the power of its
office personal computers, but European and American scientists and
government officials said that Europe was moving faster than the United
States to capitalize on the approach, which is called grid computing.
Grids lash individual computers together, tapping their unused power to
tackle complex computing chores beyond the scope of isolated
processors. They are being called upon by scientists and corporations
for a variety of applications, including building low cost
supercomputers and creating work groups that can span cities or even
The shift underscores more than a new style of computing. It also
signals a new reality in the transfer of computer technologies. The
global Internet is accelerating the rate at which new technologies can
be deployed anywhere, frequently shortening or even erasing the
certainty of American technological leadership.
"Europe has decided that this is a real competitive advantage,'' said
Peter A. Freeman, assistant director of the National Science Foundation
here for computer and information science and engineering. "And they
are going after it."
Novartis used software by United Devices of Austin, Tex., to link 2,700
desktop personal computers to help create drugs. This summer the
company said that it had discovered several promising new chemical
molecules with its grid and it planned to expand the system to its
entire corporate network of 70,000 personal computers.
Europe's rush to grids underscores cultural and political differences
between it and the United States, technologists in each area say. While
American universities and companies often lead the innovation parade,
the United States sometimes becomes hamstrung in putting new
technologies into use by a proliferation of competing computing and
telecommunications standards and by government reluctance to
orchestrate industrial policies.
By contrast, European governments have traditionally been more
effective in deploying unified standards and concentrating on
technologies that appear to offer an economic advantage. But that extra
help can lead to big mistakes, occasionally pushing technologies so far
ahead of the market that they never deliver a reasonable payoff.
Cellphone networks are an example of the difference. Although the
technology was invented in the United States, the current European
digital cellular networks are generally acknowledged to offer superior
service. But Europe's telecom companies have wasted tens of billions of
dollars buying the rights to deliver third generation, or 3-G,
cellphone services that have generated little interest. With grid
computing, Europe may have as much as an 18-month lead in deploying the
advances in practical ways, European scientists and government
While the United States is beginning to respond to a report in February
from the National Science Foundation Advisory Panel on
Cyberinfrastructure urging coordinated investment in grid technologies,
the European Union is preparing to start two major initiatives in early
One, called Enabling Grids for E-science in Europe, aims to build the
largest international grid infrastructure to date, operating in more
than 70 institutions throughout Europe, providing 24-hour grid service
and a computing capacity comparable to 20,000 of today's most powerful
The other is a distributed supercomputing project, led by France's
National Center for Scientific Research, that will connect seven
supercomputers in Europe at optical network speeds, getting a leg up on
the TeraGrid project in the United States, which aims to connect the
nation's major supercomputer sites.
"The goal is to establish Europe as one of the most dynamic and
creative environment in the world to deploy grid-enabled
infrastructures," said Mário Campolargo, director for the research
infrastructure unit at the European Commission in Brussels.
The strategy appears to be leading toward accelerating the deployment
of commercial projects like the Novartis grid.
There are a "number of research-oriented organizations in Europe that
have made significant early progress," said Andy Butler, a vice
president for enterprise systems in the London office of the Gartner
Group, a technology research firm. Europe's advances, he added, mean
"vendors like I.B.M., Sun and Hewlett-Packard have made a lot of their
early progress in Europe, as opposed to the U.S."
The Europeans also have the advantage of a clearer road map than in the
United States, where planning for computing and networking
infrastructure is scattered throughout the federal government.
"The European Union has a 5- to 10-year strategic plan finalized,''
said Larry Smarr, a grid computing pioneer who runs an institute
associated with the San Diego and Irvine campuses of the University of
California. "This is a slap in the face and a wake-up call that things
have gone global.''
The Hewlett-Packard Company, for example, said last week that it had
joined BAE Systems, a British maker of aerospace and defense systems;
Cardiff University; the University of Wales, Swansea; and the Institute
of High Performance Computing in Singapore to use grid computing for
advanced, collaborative simulation and visualization in aerospace and
The project is being paid for in part by Britain's Department of Trade
and Industry and will try to solve computer security problems when
using a grid because businesses like BAE need to control what
information should be protected from outsiders.
When it comes to grid projects "geared towards getting real
applications running, there are probably more in Europe," said Martin
Walker, an executive at Hewlett-Packard involved in technical computing
for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
The British government is helping to lead that drive: It is supporting
a variety of projects, including the Diagnostic Mammography National
Database project, which received matching funds from I.B.M. and aims to
use grid computing to create a new model for scanning, storing and
"The nice thing about'' the project "is that it is linked to the
government's e-science program, not just a random collection of work,"
said Brian Carpenter, an engineer in the storage and networking section
of the I.B.M. Systems Group. The link with the government means "there
is a very good chance that it will be integrated into the national
health care system," he said.
The British government alone will spend $335 million on grid computing
from 2000 to 2005, said John M. Taylor, director general of research
councils in the Britain's Office of Science and Technology and a former
director of Hewlett-Packard Laboratories Bristol, the European arm of
the company's long-range research laboratories.
"The technology is mostly still coming from the U.S.," said Ian Foster,
associate division director for the distributed systems lab at Argonne
National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill. "What is happening now - which is
either good or worrisome, depending on your perspective - is that there
is a tremendous amount of investment in the European Union."
Beyond money from individual governments, the European Union is
expected to spend $428 million from 2002 through 2006 to upgrade the
grid's infrastructure. Unlike in the United States, all the projects
have fixed objectives and private sector partners.
Grid backers argue that lagging American planning and financial support
is an issue in part because of evidence that the creation of computing
grids will have a direct economic impact. Last month, a study released
by the Rural Internet Access Authority, a North Carolina economic
development group with industry backing, estimated that deployment of
an advanced computing grid in the state would add more than $10 billion
and 24,000 jobs through 2010.
The United States is ahead on one front: it has made the most progress
in the deployment of computing grids for scientific applications like
studying earthquake risks. Next year, the TeraGrid project is expected
to offer computing speeds of up to 20 trillion mathematical operations
a second and the ability to store a petabyte of information - about
what could be saved on 25,000 standard personal computer hard drives.
Europe's equivalent effort, Openlab, involving I.B.M. and a research
center in Switzerland for the Geneva-based European Organization for
Nuclear Research, known by its French acronym, CERN, is not expected to
reach the same level until 2005.
But the Europeans are racing ahead in developing faster optical
networks. A CERN-Caltech team set an Internet 2 Land Speed Record
recently by transferring 1.1 trillion bytes of data in less than 30
Such transfer speeds were "not even thinkable a year ago," said Flavia
Donno, the computer scientist in charge of physics experiments on the
grid for CERN.
Now the Europeans are ready to move to 40 gigabits a second, relying in
part on what is known as dark fiber, unused high speed fiber optic
infrastructure. The test beds will allow scientists and businesses to
share information and computer infrastructure in real time.
The work being done in Europe is much more concentrated on building
something that is ready for end-users than are the grid projects in the
United States, said Dr. Donno, who worked with American scientists to
build the first interoperable grid between Europe and the United
States. With Europe ahead in getting large applications running,
American scientists have asked for a role in the Enabling Grids for
E-science in Europe project. But because European research and
development programs do not normally provide financial support for
American participation, the Europeans are asking the National Science
Foundation to contribute to the project. Mr. Freeman, the foundation
official, met recently with European Commission officials on the issue.
"I hope they will find an agreement that is a good balance between
national competitiveness and international cooperation," said Fabrizio
Gagliardi, project leader of the European DataGrid middleware project.
There is "so much to be gained if we join forces,'' he said. "We need a
worldwide infrastructure so that we can really work to solve basic
problems like the energy crisis and sustainable development."
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Kelvin Chu, Physics Department, Cook Building
82 University Place, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT 05405-0125
http://www.uvm.edu/~kchu/; (802) 656-0064; Fax: (802) 656-0817