Grid users get easy access to powerful research tools, says Judy Redfearn
Like the web, a grid accesses remote distributed resources while hiding the underlying complexities from the user. It also retrieves and integrates services providing computational power, data-storage capacity and instruments. By pooling resources, it allows people to collaborate on large-scale research challenges. The software that enables these resources to work together is called "middleware" because it lies between the network connecting the resources and the user. By following common middleware standards, grids can interoperate.
The core grid for academic research in the UK is run by the National Grid Service. It is about to undergo an upgrade that will boost its data-storage capacity to more than 100TB. Users will have access to 220 dual-processor nodes. This capacity is held at four core sites - the Council for the Central Laboratory for the Research Councils and three universities.
The CCLRC provides the central co-ordination. The Joint Information Systems Committee, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the CCLRC fund the core facility, but the NGS also provides users with access to the national high-performance computing facility (HPCx) and a growing number of partner and affiliate sites. The standardisation of interfaces, based on the Globus toolkit and the San Diego Storage Resource Broker, allows other sites to join and the NGS to interoperate with other grids. Within the UK, these include GridPP (the particle physics grid), campus grids and regional grids. The NGS provides a national "gateway" to international e-infrastructures.
NGS users must have a digital certificate and an account. But the NGS and Jisc are working to simplify access by making it compatible with the single sign-on to web-based services Jisc is introducing for UK academics. The NGS is also about to start working more closely with the Open Middleware Infrastructure Institute UK, which re-engineers proof-of-concept middleware to make it easier to use.
Ultimately, the NGS plans to provide integrated access to the full range of the UK's computation and database research facilities and services to support novel collaboration.