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Technology Primer

What is grid computing?

Grid computing connects computers that are scattered over a wide geographic area, allowing their computing power to be shared. Just as the World Wide Web enables access to information, computer grids enable access to computing resources. These resources include data storage capacity, processing power, sensors, visualization tools and more. Thus, grids can combine the resources of thousands of different computers to create a massively powerful computing resource, accessible from the comfort of a personal computer and useful for multiple applications, in science, business and beyond. (The GridCafe website gives more information on this.)

Why do grids matter?

For scientists trying to solve highly complex problems, grid computing provides the power to help solve some huge questions: What happened just after the Big Bang? How will global warming affect our lives in the future? Is there a cure for malaria or cancer? Grids are helping researchers find answers to these questions. Grids also speed things up: a simulation that might take weeks on a single PC can run in hours on a grid. This means grids can react quickly to changing needs, providing an invaluable resource during crises like natural disasters or epidemics.

Further, since grids cannot work without people, the development of computing grids also develops communities. Grids encourage and require people from different countries and cultures to work together to solve problems.

Did you know?

The computing term “grid” was inspired by the “electrical grid,” with the idea that plugging into a computing grid could be as simple as plugging into an electrical outlet. Like an electrical grid, users would simply access as much computing power as they required, without knowing where it comes from or how it was produced. This is not yet the case, but it has led to the term “utility computing,” where computing power is viewed as a utility available on a pay-as-you-go basis, like gas or electricity.

What are the challenges of grid computing?

Grid computing works because people participating in grids opt to share their computer power with others. This opens many questions, both social and technical. Who should be allowed to use each grid? Whose job should get priority in the queue to use grid power? What is the best way to protect user security? How will users pay for grid usage? Answering these questions requires all-new technical solutions, each of which must evolve as other grid and information technologies develop. Since grids involve countries and regions all over the world, these solutions must also suit different technical requirements, limitations and usage patterns.

Grid computing in the future

Grid computing isn’t simple, but its potential is huge. Grids are providing technology that can transform the world’s computing resources into seamless computing powerhouses, allowing new ways of doing science and enabling new virtual research communities. They are helping communities across the globe in their quest for improved knowledge of our planet and our universe, which means boons for our heath, economy, environment and future.

Want to know more?

See below for a crash course in grid computing — along with basic, capsule introductions to cloud computing and supercomputing. And don’t forget the Briefings in our Press Room for more details!

A crash course in grid computing . . . a further description of grid computing and what it does.

What is cloud computing? . . . a one-page, quickie explanation. (In addition, you can also watch a selection of cloud computing videos that will help you understand this ever-evolving concept. And don’t forget our video tutorials about the grid, which tell such things as how to submit jobs via gLite.)

What is high-performance computing?

Now that you know what these different types of computing are, see our next section, “Get started, step-by-step” to see some of the nuts-and-bolts of doing it yourself.