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The power of many

Could the search for the so-called god particle lead to an evolutionary leap in networking?

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The Large Hadron Collider is easily the most impressive machine that mankind has ever built—and that includes the new G3 iPhone. The new giant particle accelerator at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (better known as CERN) facility on the French-Swiss border is an underground tunnel with a circumference of 27 kilometres. The LHC
is lined with 9,300 magnets that are cooled with liquid nitrogen and liquid helium to within two degrees of absolute zero—colder than the average temperature of deep space.

When the LHC is fully activated later this summer, two beams of subatomic particles will be propelled in opposite directions at 99.99% of the speed of light, causing 600 million particle collisions every second. Those collisions will create miniscule flashes of energy 100,000 times hotter than the centre of the Sun, as scientists seek to recreate conditions around the origin of the universe.

Now, unless you're a physicist, or just someone who is deeply moved by the idea of figuring out the secrets of the universe, it's understandable if you're not jumping up and down with excitement about the LHC. There is, however, one aspect of the project that should get everyone jazzed—and that's the way in which the massive amount of information generated by the LHC being shared and analyzed around the world could change how fast and advanced computer networks will get.

Sophisticated LHC detectors will generate a nearly unfathomable amount of data: up to 15 petabytes a year. That's enough to fill a stack of double-sided dual-layer DVDs 107 metres high. In order to transmit this data and allow scientists around the world to analyze it, a superfast computer network has been set up called the LHC Computing Grid. Think of it as a parallel Internet for scientists that represents an evolutionary leap forward in networking.

While not the only computing grid, the LHC Grid is the biggest, fastest and most sophisticated. It operates on dedicated fibre-optic lines that have already achieved sustained transfer rates of over a gigabyte per second. That's thousands of times faster than the typical connections familiar to home users, and a speed that would allow you to transfer a full-length, high-definition movie in just a few seconds. Even more exciting than the transfer rate is the technology that allows this superfast network to combine the processing and storage capabilities of thousands of computers at research centres around the globe into a single giant supercomputer.

Over a dozen start-ups have already begun to leverage the expertise they've gained from working on the technologies behind the LHC Grid to bring new applications to the public. Potential apps include everything from genome research to real-time immersive gaming. A study from Insight Research Corp. put a price tag of $5 billion (U.S.) on the worldwide market for all Grid technologies.

It's no wonder CERN is responsible for this leap forward. After all, it was there, in 1989, that Tim Berners-Lee had an idea to help physicists communicate. His breakthrough was to combine hypertext technology with Internet protocols, and that's how he invented the World Wide Web.

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