Grid Impressions at SC06

By By Helen Thomson, GRIDtoday

November 27, 2006

Unless you were sidetracked by the gleaming bonnet of the convertible Jag, or enticed into winning an iPod nano on the hour, every hour, you couldn't fail to miss the fascinating display of high performance computing and Grid technology at Supercomputing 2006. If you weren't able to attend, here are just a few of the highlights you missed out on.

SC06, took place in Tampa Bay, set on the vibrant waterfront area of Florida's west coast. The theme of this year's conference took inspiration from Albert Einstein who said, “Computers are incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid; humans are incredibly slow, inaccurate and brilliant; together they are powerful beyond imagination.” This concept was embraced by the wide variety of Grid technologies displayed amongst 400 exhibitors, as well as throughout technical and educational programs, workshops and tutorials.

The power that Grid technology offers the modern world was also noted in Ray Kurzweil's keynote speech at the beginning of the week. Described as 'the restless genius' by the Wall Street Journal, and 'the ultimate thinking machine' by Forbes, Ray Kurzweil is not only a visionary, an author and an inventor, but on Monday morning, a thoroughly enigmatic speaker to boot. He specifically highlighted the influence that shared processing power and advanced computer technology can have in helping biomedical communities fight disease. “We will even see scientists recreating the computational capacity of the human brain in the next 50 years,” says Kurzweil, as he prophesises the results of the rapid pace of technological change, and shares his view that the 21 century will see 20,000 years of progress at today's current rate.

IBM and The Ecole Polytechnique FÈdÈrale de Lausanne (EPFL) described this particular achievement in more detail at a well-attended presentation of the 'Blue Brain' project, a joint research initiative, working to create a precise model of the circuitry in the neocortex — the most complex area of the human brain. Scientists from both institutions, hope to use this as a starting point on which to build the rest of the brain. “This is the most difficult part of the brain to recreate, if we can do this we can do the rest,” said Henry Markram from EPFL, presenting the project.

Familiar names in Grid computing in the United States and Europe, including Enabling Grids for E-sciencE, Open Science Grid, TeraGrid and UK e-Science, were all present at SC06. There was also a large demonstration of Asia's input, primarily based around the 'Grid Technology Research Center' from Japan, who demonstrated many of their latest achievements in advanced Grid programming tools, security and reliability; even applications working on providing detailed global earth observations and biological protein imaging.

Although many exhibitors demonstrated how they are already using Grid systems for their work, the conference also provided non-Grid users such as Mark Birkin, the chance to investigate how Grid technologies could improve their individual projects. Birkin, from the UK's University of Leeds, has created a real-life 'SimCity' model of the UK population, using information collected at the 2001 census. Users can input scenarios into his program, such as 'add three healthcare centres in Manchester' which, using information and statistics from a variety of sources, projects the effect of each scenario, 15-20 years into the future. This allows policy-makers and government officials to determine the outcome of their decisions on the population before any money is spent. “We're interested in investigating the potential use of Grid technologies to help process the numerous calculations that are needed to compute each scenario,” says Birkin. The conference was home to many similar partnerships, and provided an excellent chance to network with some of the biggest names in Grid computing.

Visitors at the conference also witnessed the unveiling of many new technologies. Of particular interest to all Grid users was the presentation of a new interactive map, developed by researchers from GridPP in the UK and CERN in Geneva. The map, representing nine of the world's largest computing Grids, uses Google Earth to pinpoint Grid sites from six continents and displays over 300 working sites. “The grids on the map are part of the Open Grid Forum's Grid Interoperation Now (GIN) group, all trying to enable seamless interoperation between the various infrastructures,” said Laurence Field, a researcher from CERN, leading work on the map.

Interoperability was a key word at this year's conference, with many talks, debates and presentations discussing how critical it is to optimising the full capabilities of distributed Grid systems. Business and scientific researchers alike spoke of the many advantages to having fully interoperable products available to Grid users.

From the biggest Grid communities in the world, to the individual Grid user, all areas of Grid technology had a presence at SC06, and together their impact on the future of computing and global communications was clearly demonstrated. As Grid communities continue to grow, next year's conference will surely see most travelling, along with many new groups, to Reno, for next year's Supercomputing 2007.

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