By Johnny Firecloud
|The internet as we know it could soon be made obsolete. The "information superhighway," as it’s so often referred to, is in actuality no more than a winding dirt path through the jungle compared to the possibilities the future holds.|
The scientists at Cern, the same people who pioneered today’s internet, have built a lightning-fast replacement capable of downloading massive amounts of data at speeds roughly 10,000 times faster than the current typical broadband connection.
‘The grid,’ as it’s being called, is also capable of providing the kind of power needed to transmit holographic images and high-definition video conferencing, as well as countless other technological possibilities only considered possible in the imaginations of Hollywood producers. Imagine downloading a two-hour movie in HD in five seconds, gaming online with thousands of people at once, or stepping into a virtual world of social networking that makes sites like MySpace and Facebook look like one-dimensional digital greeting cards.
This summer, scientists at Cern will see the grid in action for the first time when they switch on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a massive new particle accelerator built to probe the origin of the universe. The grid will be activated at the same time to capture the data the LHC generates. Cern began the grid project seven years ago when researchers came to the conclusion that the LHC would generate enough annual data to fill 56 million CDs – enough to make a stack 40 miles high. Professor Tony Doyle, technical director of the grid project, explained the staggering energy demands of the LHC: “We need so much processing power, there would even be an issue about getting enough electricity to run the computers if they were all at Cern. The only answer was a new network powerful enough to send the data instantly to research centres in other countries.”
The internet is largely linked together through a mess of cables and routing equipment that was originally designed to transmit telephone calls, and most of it lacks the capacity for high-speed data transmission. As a result, there are certain limits to the technological capabilities of the current version of the internet we’re familiar with. The grid, however, is being built with modern fiber-optic cables and routing centers. There are 55,000 servers already installed worldwide, with another 145,000 expected in the next two years. Naturally, all this will mean a hefty chunk of money out of consumers’ pockets. But will it be worth it?
David Britton, professor of physics at Glasgow University and a leading figure in the grid project, has high hopes for the grid’s potentially revolutionary impact on society. “With this kind of computing power, future generations will have the ability to collaborate and communicate in ways older people like me cannot even imagine,” he said. One such revolutionary step will be the rise of "cloud computing" – a system where people store all their files and information online, with the ability to access it from anywhere on Earth.
The grid is now being made available to dozens of academic researchers, astronomers and molecular biologists, and has already been used by scientists to help design new drugs against malaria, the mosquito-borne disease that kills over a million people worldwide each year. Researchers used the grid to analyze 140 million different compounds, a challenge that would have taken today’s current computers about 420 years.