The chips are flying

October 20, 2006

Researchers at almost any university in Canada can access expensive testing equipment thanks to a 'virtual collaboratory'. Stephen Strauss reports

You would not find a machine like this in any university laboratory in Canada," Jeetendar Narsinghani says proudly of the grey boxy instrument he has been demonstrating. The engineer's pride is appropriate: the box represents $7 million (£3.7 million) of Agilent 93000 SOC equipment that tests computer chips.

What is disconcerting about Narsinghani's statement is that the 93000 sits in a new university laboratory on the eighth floor of a building at the University of Toronto. The contradiction is resolved if you understand that, operationally, the machine both is and is not situated at the university.

For most of its users, the 93000, which can do a breathtaking 1.25 billion discrete tests a second, is located in a virtual internet space that is accessible to researchers in laboratories in any of 21 universities across the country. The scientists ship their chips to Toronto and then conduct tests on them over the internet in what is being described as the world's largest and most complex "virtual collaboratory". Not only can the data from testing done in Toronto appear on computer screens almost anywhere in the country, but two cameras in the lab allow researchers to track the positioning of the chip.

The Toronto site is one of four virtual testing nodes designed to give Canadian university scientists access to expensive advanced machinery that had previously not been found outside industry - and even then it was often outside Canada. Advanced optical systems technology is tested at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. A laboratory that allows verification of digital and analogue systems has been located at McGill University in Montreal. And a locale where radio-frequency devices can be tested is situated at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. A virtual lab can contain a vast amount of equipment. Queen's virtual optical collaboratory employs 137 different devices.

The four virtual laboratories - which are supported by C$23 million (£11 million) in funds provided by provincial and federal sources - are managed under the auspices of the Canadian Microelectronics Corporation.

This non-profit organisation was set up in 1984 to try to provide Canadian institutes of higher education with access to high-technology devices and equipment required to create expertise in a chip-based economy.

The advent of the internet and high-speed connections held out tantalising possibilities. But despite the logic of setting up a country-wide virtual collaboratory to test computer chips and related instruments, the notion initially met considerable resistance from university researchers, says Bob Stevenson, CMC senior test engineer.

In 2002, a dozen sceptical researchers from across the country were recruited to be virtual collaboratory testers. "Coming in, every single one of the researchers indicated to us that it was their belief that they could not do as good a test remotely as locally," Stevenson says. After the pilot, all of them confirmed that they had not found one thing that could be done locally that they could not do remotely. "They were 100 per cent converted."

Also converted were researchers at the Institute for System Level Integration in Scotland, who were able to conduct tests at the Canadian sites from across the Atlantic. It had been thought that there would be an unacceptable time lag between testing in Canada and data being received in Scotland. But this amounted to a single second.

What the Canadian researchers also came to understand was that the model for their work was to be found not on Earth but in space. "The collaboratory is a lot like astronomers sending a probe to Mars. You do not have to be there to conduct experiments. In our case, chip-testing does not require that you have a tactile feel for what is going on in a laboratory a few thousand kilometres away," says Vincent Gaudet, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Alberta whose students have been using the Toronto facility over the net.

The students, too, are giving the virtual collaboratory the thumbs-up. "Testing from here is really no different from sitting behind a PC based in Toronto," says Keith Boyle, a graduate student who has been testing a chip designed to reduce errors in long-distance information transmission.

If there is a problem, he calls Narsinghani, who shifts things about manually.

But the truest measure of success is that hundreds of Canadian students and researchers with interests in chips as diverse as those for DNA-testing and for making smart antennas for mobile phones are now virtually collaborating across the country.
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