Jonathan Leake, Science Editor
The internet could soon be made obsolete. The scientists who pioneered it have now built a lightning-fast replacement capable of downloading entire feature films within seconds.
At speeds about 10,000 times faster than a typical broadband connection, “the grid” will be able to send the entire Rolling Stones back catalogue from Britain to Japan in less than two seconds.
The latest spin-off from Cern, the particle physics centre that created the web, the grid could also provide the kind of power needed to transmit holographic images; allow instant online gaming with hundreds of thousands of players; and offer high-definition video telephony for the price of a local call.
David Britton, professor of physics at Glasgow University and a leading figure in the grid project, believes grid technologies could “revolutionise” society. “With this kind of computing power, future generations will have the ability to collaborate and communicate in ways older people like me cannot even imagine,” he said.
The power of the grid will become apparent this summer after what scientists at Cern have termed their “red button” day - the switching-on of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the new particle accelerator built to probe the origin of the universe. The grid will be activated at the same time to capture the data it generates.
Cern, based near Geneva, started the grid computing project seven years ago when researchers realised the LHC would generate annual data equivalent to 56m CDs - enough to make a stack 40 miles high.
This meant that scientists at Cern - where Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the web in 1989 - would no longer be able to use his creation for fear of causing a global collapse.
This is because the internet has evolved by linking together a hotchpotch of cables and routing equipment, much of which was originally designed for telephone calls and therefore lacks the capacity for high-speed data transmission.
By contrast, the grid has been built with dedicated fibre optic cables and modern routing centres, meaning there are no outdated components to slow the deluge of data. The 55,000 servers already installed are expected to rise to 200,000 within the next two years.
Professor Tony Doyle, technical director of the grid project, said: “We need so much processing power, there would even be an issue about getting enough electricity to run the computers if they were all at Cern. The only answer was a new network powerful enough to send the data instantly to research centres in other countries.”
That network, in effect a parallel internet, is now built, using fibre optic cables that run from Cern to 11 centres in the United States, Canada, the Far East, Europe and around the world.
One terminates at the Rutherford Appleton laboratory at Harwell in Oxfordshire.
From each centre, further connections radiate out to a host of other research institutions using existing high-speed academic networks.
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