‘Big Bang’ global grid moves a step closer

A successful data speed test marks a milestone towards a fully functional, worldwide physics research grid. Todd R Weiss reports

A huge 100,000-PC grid-computing network being built to help research the origin of the universe passed the third of four major tests recently when it reached a data-transfer milestone, with up to 1GB/s of physics data sent over the global grid.

In an announcement earlier this month, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) said the data was transferred from CERN in Geneva to 12 major computer centres around the world. The data transfers were made to analyse real-time storage, distribution and analysis of the data while the grid is being built and refined.

The grid project is being assembled to help deliver physics data around the world from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a giant particle collider that will be used by researchers to help learn more about the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe. The LHC is scheduled to begin operating at CERN next year.

Francois Grey, an IT spokesman for CERN, says the latest test is part of a scheduled series of four tests that must be completed before the grid goes live next year.

"This was the first time that this model was tested with real data" at the 1GB/s data-transfer rate, Grey says. A previous grid test conducted in April involved seven major computer centres in the US and Europe and transferred data at lower speeds — sustained rates of up to 600MB/sec.

The 100,000-PC grid will help CERN and a worldwide network of researchers and scientists harness a huge amount of computing power and storage capacity that CERN couldn't build on its own, Grey says.

"We have absolutely no means, budgetary or otherwise, to assemble that," he says. "So the computing power is definitely something that needs to be spread out."

The grid will also be able to store some 15 petabytes of data — 15 million gigabytes — annually and will have to be continually expanded because the data will have to be preserved for analysis. "That's a big challenge, and that's why we need to distribute the storage", Grey says.

Next year, the LHC particle collider will be used by scientists to begin smashing protons and ions together in a massive, multinational experiment to understand what the universe looked like tiny fractions of a second after the Big Bang. The particle accelerator will release a vast flood of data on a scale unlike anything seen before, which is why the grid computing network is needed. The collider, which is being built near Geneva, will be a circular structure 27km in circumference and will eventually produce data at up to 1.8GB/sec.

The grid will send the data from CERN over the internet and over specialised high-speed links around the world, Grey says, via a middleware stack that can be used by researchers. When a researcher accesses the grid for data analysis, the middleware can automatically determine the closest source of the data and the closest source of computing power. It can automatically perform authentications, record keeping and other related tasks, all in a secure environment, he says.

The final major test of the grid is scheduled for the middle of this year.

Once the testing is completed, four experiments will produce data that will be sent to the grid from the collider.

The experiments involve huge underground detectors that will identify collisions of particles, providing data that can be produced in large images, like a fireworks display, Grey says. The experiments are designed help researchers to learn whether other particles briefly came into existence when the universe was formed during the Big Bang and to find out what made up those missing particles.

"It's detective work to figure out what was there and how it acted," Grey says. "It's real, fundamental science. This grid is being built to handle huge amounts of data that is being spewed out. There are Nobel Prizes at stake, so it's pretty exciting."

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