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February 2005

Stripped-down grid :
A lightweight grid for computing's have-nots


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This kind of research could save lives and prevent unnecessary suffering.

Grid computing has the potential to transform everything from drug discovery to aerospace design to analyzing stock portfolios but, until recently, its benefits were confined to regions where computing infrastructure is plentiful.

HP is working with researchers in Brazil to change that --- exploring new technologies that could bring the advantages of grid computing to some of computing's have-nots.

By hooking together individual computers around the world, scientists have created virtual supercomputers or grids that can quickly process vast amounts of information, helping to produce breakthroughs in meteorology, physics, medicine and other fields.

The Brazilian effort, relying on a software program called OurGrid, represents a lightweight approach to grid computing. Most grids today are composed of large organizations and new users must negotiate entry. To join the new network, users need only download the open source software (the latest release is OurGrid 3.0.2). By installing and using this software, users can make their own resources available to others and also become able to access resources from peers.

Standard Grid computing far from reality for most

Unlike a classic grid approach, the Brazillian effort's uses are limited to applications that can be decomposed in smaller tasks running independently of each other such as data mining, massive searches, computer imaging and computational biology.

Regardless, scientists have found OurGrid to be plenty useful: The software has possible applications to projects ranging from drought forecasting to medical research.

"Despite the great progress made in the last years, grid computing is still far from reality to most users," says Walfredo Cirne of Universidade Federal de Campina Grande (UFCG), which initiated the effort. "OurGrid is an attempt to change this, delivering grid power to whoever needs it.”

Simple, decentralized and open

HP began funding the UFCG effort in 2003, and researchers from HP Brazil and HP Labs Bristol (UK) then also began contributing to the collaborative effort. (The collaboration is one of numerous grid projects at HP. To learn more, go here.)

"There's a well-known slogan about grid that says it'll do for computing resources what the Web did for data," says Miranda Mowbray, a researcher at HP Labs Bristol, who worked on the system's resource-allocation mechanism and advised on ways to strengthen the system's online community.

"Grids use the same insight -- that a simple, decentralized, open system may be more effective than a proprietary one," she adds. "Our implementation goes a step further than the standard approach in its simplicity and the autonomy of its distributed parts."

Along the way to developing the new technology, researchers faced (and continue to face) a series of challenges, including skepticism from the broader grid community about their unorthodox approach. In addition, key characteristics of the technology -- that it's lightweight and decentralized -- pose further problems. Without centralized information on the state of the network, there's no way of knowing whether a specific machine is available, or to provide a global audit trail or shared cryptographic infrastructure. As a result, researchers have to find new ways to do scheduling, resource allocation and security while using limited information.

Potential for large impact

Members of the new grid community are already producing results in medical and scientific research.

A medical research project in Rio de Janeiro used the system's computing power to successfully screen drugs for effectiveness with an HIV variant that is more common in Brazil and parts of Africa but rare in US and the EU -- the two markets that sway new drug development.

“The results of this type of project could have a huge impact on the availability of the proper medications in Brazil and Africa,” says Darlei Abreu of HP Brazil R&D.

Other scientists are experimenting with system resources to create a better model for predicting drought cycles in the Sertão area of Northeast Brazil. This vast region is the poorest in Brazil and suffers from severe and recurring drought. More accurate predictions could lead to better water allocation and more effective relief programs.

"This kind of research could save lives and prevent unnecessary suffering," says UFCG's Cirne.

Peer-to-peer network

A key feature of the new technology is that it enables users to exchange resources, a simple peer-to-peer protocol known as network of favors. Users are encouraged to donate their idle resources to execute applications for peers (doing them a "favor") because doing so increases their chances of receiving an equivalent favor back from the community.

"In some sense, users 'store' their idle resources (which would be being totally wasted) on the community for later use," says Roque Scheer, an HP Brazil R&D manager.

Instead of requiring negotiation as a standard grid does, the new grid technology enables a much simpler automatic entry.

"Network of Favors ensures that, on average, you get back from the community the same amount of resources (CPU time) you donated," Cirne adds.

Next steps

Some of HP's technical contributions to the collaborative effort are finding their way back into HP research projects. In Bristol, researchers are testing to determine whether the grid's resource allocation mechanism can be used in a trial of a service utility for film animators. (See related story, "Lights! Cameras! Compute!)

At the same time, researchers at HP, UFCG and other institutions are working to make the technology more versatile and more useful, exploring ways to use grid technology in commercial settings, creating large-scale community grids and looking into grid scheduling and dynamic resource allocation.

They also hope to make it possible for the system to run more types of applications, and they are working to apply grid standards (set by the Global Grid Forum) so that the new system can interoperate with other grids around the world.

Mowbray, who hopes to return to UFCG this summer to explore whether OurGrid can be extended to support sharing of data as well as sharing of computing power, says the work is both exciting and rewarding.

"It's just great to work on a project that supports applications like screening pharmaceuticals to treat a Brazilian variant of HIV/AIDS, and planning for water security in drought-prone Northeast Brazil," she says. "I find that very motivating."

Related links

» OurGrid
» HP Brazil (Portugese)

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The OurGrid  Solution
The OurGrid Solution
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OurGrid is just one example of how HP is putting its energies toward grid computing. The company's commitment ranges from grid-enabling its products to contributing to grid standards via the Global Grid Forum to linking its computing resources to grids to help manage and analyze massive quantities of data.

For more information, see:
» The Future is Grid
» HP's grid sponsorships, collaborative research, Global Grid Forum activities
» HP grid computing

HP Brazil-sponsored grid HP Brazil-sponsored grid
»click here for larger image
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