Research dream comes true

May 02, 2002, vol. 24, no. 1
By Carol Thorbes

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It's a researcher's dream come true.

The ability to travel through cyberspace and access computer resources with the storage capacity and software sophistication of hundreds of supercomputers.

The dream is coming true for hundreds of researchers at eight research institutions in Western Canada. Simon Fraser University math professor Jonathan Borwein and physics professor Michael Vetterli are among five internationally renowned researchers pioneering the development of WestGrid. It will be the first ultra high-speed network of its kind in Canada, and one of a few worldwide.

The federal government, the provinces of B.C. and Alberta, and the private sector are pouring $30 million into WestGrid's creation. SFU, the universities of British Columbia, Alberta, Calgary and Lethbridge, the New Media Innovation Centre, TRIUMF and Banff Centre are providing the computational and intellectual resources.

Researchers at the eight institutions will have easy, instant and economical access to WestGrid - a grid that networks clusters of computers and multi-media facilities at the institutions.

Through software tools, users will be able to access the computer grid and share multiple processors, large memories and data files and sophisticated visualization programs over the Internet.

“Researchers will have access to better and more varied computational resources than any one institution could ever afford,” says Borwein.

A world leader in using highly intensive computational methods in pure mathematics, Borwein adds, “We are in the age of dry science - virtual laboratories that require supercomputers to process, analyse and share data. Wet science - a traditional lab with test tubes - is here to stay but dry labs are dramatically enhancing them.”

SFU assistant professor of molecular biology and biochemistry Fiona Brinkman is looking forward to accessing WestGrid. She is involved in several genomic projects. They require her to prioritize which genes and proteins in infectious disease causing bacteria should be targeted for study.

“In order to isolate which genes and proteins would be best targeted for the development of vaccines and drugs, I need to computationally analyse large and complex databases,” explains Brinkman.

Borwein and Vetterli also require access to high-powered, soph-isticated computational resources to analyse reams of data and test theories.

Vetterli, a senior scientist at TRIUMF, Canada's national particle and nuclear physics laboratory, is unraveling the structure of matter and the fundamental forces of nature.

Borwein notes that WestGrid's most expensive and most valued legacy won't be its ability to lasso and distribute the power of supercomputers across the Internet.

“Most of the $30 million investment in WestGrid is to teach researchers how to harness its enormous potential. We'll know we're tapping it when we start using it collaboratively to solve presently intractable problems in real-time as easily as we use blackboards and overheads.”

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