New Teragrid Goes Beyond Supercomputing

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

Four U.S. scientific institutions have been promised $53 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to build and operate the nation's most powerful research network. The computer network's official name is the Distributed Terascale Facility, taken from its targeted capacity to perform trillions of operations per second (teraflops) and store hundreds of terabytes of data. But if it's a success, it may go down in history as Internet 3.

The teragrid, as it's been dubbed, is touted as a new breed of supercomputing, with software that will allow high-speed, high-bandwidth connections previously not possible. "It's not just size or speed," says Fran Berman, head of the San Diego Supercomputer Center. "This will change how people use data, and how they compute." Her counterpart at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Urbana-Champaign, Dan Reed, says it will "eliminate the tyranny of time and distance." Speaking at a hastily arranged teleconference shortly after the award was approved by the National Science Board last Thursday, project leaders said that the teragrid will be a boon for researchers working on everything from drug discovery to long-range climate forecasting.

The institutions--the University of California, San Diego; the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena; and Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago--were the only entrants in what was scheduled to be a competition. "We were under a lot of political pressure to get this out by September," says an NSF official, "and we only gave them 3 months to put together their bid." Despite the advantage of having an open field, the winners put together a proposal "that passed [peer review] with flying colors," says Bob Borchers, NSF's head of advanced computing. "We told them what we were looking for, and they responded magnificently."

The teragrid will build upon an existing 40-billion-bits-per-second fiber-optic network, the so-called Internet 2, created by Qwest, one of three key industrial partners in the facility. It will rely on clustered Linux servers from IBM powered by thousands of Itanium-family processors from Intel. Each of the four institutions will contribute hardware and software to the teragrid, which by April 2003 is expected to deliver 13.6 teraflops of computing power and more than 450 terabytes of storage. NSF officials hope to then "deepen" the network to connect a steadily rising number of regional and local sites.

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