Sir Tim Berners-Lee pioneered the internet in the hallowed precincts of this scientific institution in March 1989, as a mode of communication that revolutionised the way we communicate with the rest of the world. The product was further refined by him along with Robert Cailliau at CERN, in 1990, to usher in the revolution worldwide as worldwide web.
At CERN, the main research is focused on studying the basic constituents of matter — the fundamental particles of an atom and the world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments are employed at CERN for this purpose. CERN uses large particle accelerators and detectors to study particle collisions. Accelerators boost beams of particles to high energies before they are made to collide with each other or with stationary targets. Detectors observe and record the results of these collisions.
In this context, CERN has developed the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a gigantic particle accelerator to study the smallest known particles called ‘Hadrons’. LHC is a gigantic scientific instrument near Geneva where it spans the border between Switzerland and France about 100 m underground. It will revolutionise our understanding from the miniscule world deep within atoms to the vastness of the Universe.
Physicists began using the LHC to re-create the conditions just after the ‘Big Bang’ by colliding the two beams head-on at very high energy in late April this year.
However, the physicists realised that the LHC experiments (codenamed ALICE, ATLAS, CMS and LHCb) will generate some 15 petabytes (a unit of information or computer storage equal to one quadrillion bytes. It is commonly abbreviated PB. 1PB = 1015 bytes
of data each year. This is the equivalent of 20 million CD-ROMs or a stack 50 miles high and the challenge of storing and analyzing such huge amounts of data was enormously huge! .
Hence, CERN began ‘Enabling Grids for E-science’ (EGEE) project seven years ago to look into the computing needs of the mega project by building a network of dedicated fiber optic cables and modern routing centers; ensuring that there would no outdated components to slow down the deluge of vast data generated by the LHC project. 55,000 servers have been already installed and the number is expected to rise to 200,000 within the next two years.
This network is in effect a parallel internet and has been built using fiber optic cables that run from CERN to 11 centers in the United States, Canada, the Far East, Europe and other parts of the world. From each centre, further connections radiate out to a host of other research institutions using existing high-speed academic networks. These connections will be available to many research institutes all over the world replacing the internet on many campuses around the world this summer.
Ian Bird, project leader for CERN high-speed computing project, says the Grid technology could make the internet so fast that people would stop using desktop computers to store information and entrust it all to the new internet.
“It will lead to what’s known as cloud computing where people keep all their information online and access it from anywhere”. Computers on the grid can also transmit data at lightning speed. This will allow researchers facing heavy processing tasks to call on the assistance of thousands of other computers around the world. The aim is to eliminate the dreaded ’frozen screen’ experienced by internet users who ask their machine to handle too much information.
Although the grid itself is unlikely to be directly available to domestic internet users, many telecom providers and associated businesses are keen on introducing its pioneering technologies. One of the most potent is the so-called ‘dynamic switching’ that creates a dedicated channel for internet users trying to download large volumes of data like films. In theory, this would give a standard desktop computer the ability to download a movie in five seconds; rather than the current three hours or so.
Additionally, the Grid is being made available to dozens of other academic areas like bio-medicine, multimedia, astrophysics, archaeology and computational chemistry. It has already been used to help design new drugs against malaria, the mosquito-borne disease that kills one million people worldwide each year.
Researchers have used the grid to analyse the chemical structure of 140million compounds - a task that would have taken standard internet-linked PC 420 years! Projects like the Grid will bring huge changes in business and society as well as science.
Online gaming could evolve to include many thousands of people and social networking could become the main way we communicate. Holographic video conferencing is not that far away from becoming a reality. Thus, you could end up chatting with holographic images of your beloved brother who stays in the US or your uncles and aunties who stay in UK just as they were present in the flesh and blood, sitting across your dining table!