Australian scientists will have access to a multi-million dollar national cloud network and $50 million towards a petabyte supercomputer and data centre within three to five years under slated improvements to the nation's grid networks.
The upgrades will make it easier for scientists working in fields such as cancer research, space exploration and mechanical engineering to access the nation-wide computer networks without requiring complex IT skills, or in most cases, without paying a cent.
Grid networks provide unparalleled compute capacity critical to processing the huge data streams generated by cutting-edge scientific research. Such research would often be stonewalled without access to each state's High-performance Computing Facilities and the thousands of smaller clusters spread across the country. Disparate groups of all sizes can pool compute resources into a grid, and provision equal access to data and processing with minimal IT know-how.
Organisers are also planning to tighten links between Australia’s cloud research networks and the mammoth grids spread across the Northern Hemisphere. Europe's Enabling Grids for E-sciencE (EGEE), the largest in the world, gained international attention during lead-up to the 2009 failed launch of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland and its subsequent refiring at half capacity last November, with media reports claiming the supporting grid networks including that operated by the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, would change or even replace the Internet.
While other experts are less prophetic, these grids are at the forefront of network computing; the CERN network includes some 20,000 mostly Linux-based servers spread across Europe and the US, while the EGEE presently supports more than 10,000 researchers and processes about 150,000 compute jobs a day that amount to hundreds of terabytes of data.
Most recently, the networks have helped Australian researchers discover a way to 'smart bomb' cancer using radioactive drugs without damaging adjacent cells, and save time and money in the transportation of data for CSIRO and NASA radio astronomers, while Holden uses the network to help design and test new safety features and aerodynamics in its cars.
The Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) will also use the grids to create analysis tools and collate data on the country's the 250 million flora, fauna and microbes, a task recently propped up with an additional $30 million in funds to 2011 from its initial $8.2 million.
Upgrades are well underway for Australia's foremost research datacentre, the National Facility, lead by the National Computational Infrastructure (NCI) group and situated in Canberra. Director Lindsay Botten said the processing capacity of its Sun Constellation supercomputer rose from 25 to 140 teraflops last year (2009), and will reach 200 teraflops by year’s end (2010) and eventually exceed a petaflop by 2012.
"Everything is heading towards data-intensive science, and effective network access speeds will go through the roof," Botten said.
"The federal budget funds - $20 million for the data centre and $30 million for the petascale computer - were allocated for the next two years to provide compute resources to specific research areas like climate change, which itself received substantial money."
Climate change research will receive the lion's share of the facility's resources along with the existing network of seven supernodes that each contain about 10 petabytes of data.
The lands of the long white cloud
Australia and New Zealand researchers will within five years jointly operate under a trans-Tasman cloud network that promises to be simpler, and more standardised and scalable than the current grid. It will be spearheaded by grid operator the Australian Research Collaboration Service (ARCS), which despite discordant opinion on what differentiates a cloud from a grid, says the upgrade is a natural progression that will benefit from developments like the government's $43 billion National Broadband Network (NBN).