For years, Dr. Rayburn has been looking for tools to help his architecture students move beyond paper sketches and scaled-down models. He knows that as working architects, they will be using computer simulations that require not just design skill but proficiency with increasingly complex software and hardware. Unfortunately, hisdepartment cannot afford to purchase and support a computing system with the necessary processing capacity to run such advanced applications. Over the summer, the university’s IT staff, working with the computer science department, set up a computer grid running on the campus network. The grid connects nearly all university-owned computers, including those in labs, the library, as well as faculty andstaff offices. The software that runs the grid gives local users priority for those machines, but when they are idle, their processors can be used over the grid. Using the power of the campus grid, Dr. Rayburn’s students can now use sophisticated architectural design software that previously was unavailable because of its processing requirements. With the software, students can design buildings andother structures as well as the areas surrounding them, and create three-dimensional, interactive animations of their designs. As presentations, the animations allow viewers to “fly” over and around the scenes the students generate, zooming in and out and moving in any direction they want to go. The university’s grid supplies enough unused computing power to process the animations fast enough forit all to function smoothly. After several weeks of using the software, two of Dr. Rayburn’s students persuade faculty in the meteorology department to connect a very large climatic database to the grid. The database includes data about the exact positioning of the sun and moon at any latitude on the globe during daily, monthly, and yearly cycles, as well as historical data on weather conditionsfor most parts of the world. With the database available on the grid, the students can incorporate seasonal changes into their animations. They can render a building at a particular latitude, at a specific time of the year or spanning weeks or months. Dr. Rayburn sees that with the new capabilities, his students are able to create better designs, ones that make more creative use of naturallight—even as seasons change—and that demonstrate students’ deliberation about how their structures interact with the environment.
What is it?
Computing grids are conceptually not unlike electrical grids. In an electrical grid, wall outlets allows us to link to an infrastructure of resources that generate, distribute, and bill for electricity. When you connect to the electrical grid, you don’tneed to know where the power plant is or how the current gets to you. Grid computing uses middleware to coordinate disparate IT resources across a network, allowing them to function as a virtual whole. The goal of a computing grid, like that of the electrical grid, is to provide users with access to the resources they need, when they need them. Grids address two distinct but related goals:providing remote access to IT assets, and aggregating processing power. The most obvious resource included in a grid is a processor, but grids also encompass sensors, data-storage systems, applications, and other resources. One of the first commonly known grid initiatives was the SETI@home project, which solicited several million volunteers to download a screensaver that used idle processor capacity toanalyze data in the search for extraterrestrial life. In a more recent example, the Telescience Project provides remote access to an extremely powerful electron microscope at the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research in San Diego. Users of the grid can remotely operate the microscope, allowing new levels of access to the instrument and its capabilities.
Who’s doing it?...