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Winding its way from Europe’s flatlands to Beijing and the Chinese ports, through deserts and steppes, mountains and valleys, rivers and lakes, the Silk Road has been for centuries, maybe thousands of years, the major trading route between Europe and China. People, goods, ideas have moved back and forth, armies have gone east and west, north and south, contributing to the development of empires and civilizations. Time changes, and things with it. Trading takes new forms. In place for old style waggons and carts, horses and camels, merchants and warriors, carrying gold, silver, metals, spices, salt and other precious goods, it’s now informations and knowledge what travels on the Silk Road of modern times: the Intercontinental grid, Europe and China link for research.
In 2007, the EU-funded project, BRIDGE (for Bilateral Research and Industrial development enhancing and integrating Grid Enabled technologies), set out to link European and Chinese computing grids and enable researchers to carry out joint research.
Inspired by the realization that China is rapidly becoming a world leader in research and development, as well as a booming market for European products, the infrastructure to link computing grids represents a key step towards future scientific and industrial cooperation. Indeed, it has already produced results in aircraft design, drug development and weather prediction.
“If Europe does not want to lose ground, the response can only be to synchronise with these developments,” says Gilbert Kalb, BRIDGE project coordinator.
The BRIDGE team’s first challenge was to make the software systems that manage the European and Chinese grids compatible: the European Grid infrastructure, GRIA, and the Chinese system, CNGrid GOS, are comparable in services, but their organization is quite different.
The solution found is building a new software superstructure to access the systems and tap their capabilities. New gateways into the two grids, a shared platform to manage overall workflow, access needed applications, translation of higher-level commands into steps that each grid could carry out, are but a few of the devices and tools introduced by the BRIDGE team.
Security was an important consideration on both sides. Dr. Kalb says that many or the scientific and industrial problems that BRIDGE was developed to address require intensive cooperation, yet involve highly sensitive information.
BRIDGE resolved this issue by letting selected processes remain private. That allows one group to contribute data or results to all collaborating parties without having to share proprietary software or analytic tools.
The BRIDGE infrastructure has already been adopted in Egypt to target the malaria parasite.
BRIDGE was also used to solve a complex aeronautic problem – designing and positioning wing flaps to maximise lift and minimise noise as an aircraft lands: aerodynamic simulations which require huge computational resources. In addition, because different parts of each simulation took place in different research centres, optimising the flow of work from centre to centre was also challenging.
The BRIDGE team was able to meet these challenges, carry out intensive distributed computations, and determine optimal wing flap parameters. “It proved to be an effective method for solving multi-objective and multi-disciplinary optimisation in aircraft design,” Kalb says.
Weather and climate represent another area where international cooperation is vital. The BRIDGE researchers set out to link three large meteorological databases located in Europe, North America and Asia.
The key challenge they faced with this project was to handle enormous volumes of data efficiently.
“You could do a calculation in the United States and transfer the results to Europe, or you could fetch the data from the USA and do the calculations here,” says Kalb. “The best way to do it depends on what calculation and what data and what’s the best available way to transfer the data from place to place. Bridge does all this on the fly.”
“Because there was a big organisation behind it, and our work fits very well, it was taken up right away,” says Kalb. “I believe that meteorologists are already using it to access data and perform certain calculations.”
To Kalb, the importance of what BRIDGE accomplished goes far beyond any single piece of research. He feels that the project has built the foundation for the kind of multinational collaboration that is needed to tackle global problems.
“Problems like energy and climate change can only be attacked or really solved with efforts from different players around the world, and we’ve built a platform to do that,” he says. We proved that this is feasible and useful. Now it’s time for other people to jump on this, develop it further, and use it.