Eight institutions and 250 researchers will have access to grid computing, thanks to a project in the works called WestGrid.
What does this mean? Physicists at TRIUMF (the Tri-University Meson Facility) will be able to process data on the building blocks of the universe with labs around the
world. An astronomer in Lethbridge will be able to send data to the most appropriate system in Western Canada. And visualization experts at Simon Fraser can work with artists at The Banff Centre.
The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) has contributed $12 million to the project, plus $3.6 million in operating costs over the three years of the implementation. Hewlett Packard, IBM and SGI will contribute research facilities that will span the two provinces. This will result in a grid of high-performance computers and scientific visualization facilities.
The $44 million research infrastructure will link the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, New Media Innovation Centre, TRIUMF Physics Laboratory, University of Alberta, University of Calgary, University of Lethbridge and The Banff Centre. The resources will be connected by research networks in B.C. (BCNet), Alberta (NeteraNet) and Canada (CA*net).
Its potential is still unknown
“”The real truth is we really don’t know (the potential) — it’s an emerging way of thinking about things and of doing things, and trying to predict where it will take us is a very difficult thing,”” says Richard Foster, chief technical officer of WestGrid. He cites the example of how the National Center for Supercomputer Applications in the U.S. developed the browser several years ago to allow physicists to look at each other’s data over the Internet — and who could have predicted how that would have evolved?
“”I think this is a similar thing,”” he says. “”To me the most exciting thing about WestGrid is it’s hopefully going to be one of the enablers of technology that we haven’t even dreamed of.””
While this isn’t the first grid in Canada, Foster says it’s unique in the sense that it’s heterogeneous. “”I think it’s one of the largest in the world to have such diverse computational platforms suited to different needs in a grid environment.””
The system will allow researchers to collaborate across the country and around the world. “”From a serious researcher’s point of view, the world is a small place and they use data internationally, they provide results internationally, and they collaborate internationally,”” he says. “”What we’re trying to do is facilitate that research by providing a grid computing architecture that matches those sorts of needs.””
CFI president David Strangway says there’s no doubt this puts Canada on the map internationally. “”It opens up the potential for international partnerships — if you’re not in the game you can’t really participate in the game,”” he says.
An international list is produced every six months of the top 500 grid computing facilities in the world. “”When CFI started I think Canada might have had one on the list near the bottom,”” he says. “”For a while we had as many as 13 but this is a moving target — people are getting bigger and bigger machines, so in the meantime we were slipping back in this list.””
He says WestGrid could put Canada into the top 50 in the world.
“”Opening up this kind of computing capacity in the country is really important, not for the sake of having big computing capacity, but you look at the types of problems you can tackle, that’s very much international,”” he says. In many of today’s frontier research activities, you need access to massive computing capacity, he says.
Grid computing can be used by researchers who are modelling global climate change or doing research in the areas of proteomics, genomics and bioinformatics.
This is not the first grid computing project the CFI has supported. In fact, this is one of six projects it has funded.
Others are based out of the University of Western Ontario and Queen’s University, as well as in Montreal, Quebec City and Newfoundland.
Gren Patey, a UBC chemistry professor, says there are a number of people in science and engineering who will be involved with the project — from physics, chemistry, earth sciences, biology and computer science. “”There’s a very wide range of people working on questions on cosmotology, relativity regarding black holes, genomics to some extent, and climateology.””
The system is comprised of computers that come in different flavours, says Patey. The idea is to use all of these components as seamlessly as possible. “”Many things that could not be done on existing facilities can now be done, so it’s a major, major extension,”” he says. “”We’ve already gotten a lot of attention from grid people — that’s just on the technical aspects of what we’re trying to put in place. (With) the scientific stuff, it will allow people who are already well-known internationally to stay there and push further.””
WestGrid’s Foster says each system is quite different from the other. The system at UofA, for example, is a shared memory machine that looks like a single computer but has 256 processors. At UBC, the system has more than 1,000 loosely coupled processors connected together by Ethernet. “”So depending on the type of application that a person has, one system will be more suited than another,”” he says.
IBM is providing a Linux computing farm at UBC and TRIUMP; Hewlett Packard will supply a cluster of multiprocessors (CluMP) at the University of Calgary; and SGI will supply a 256 CPU shared memory machine at UofA and house a visualization server at SFU.