Update: US government lab offers grid computing toolkit

Programs will share video, audio, data, and text for real-time collaboration for users worldwide

A new open-source software toolkit is available Tuesday to improve remote online scientific collaboration via grid computing.

The Access Grid Toolkit from the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory enables development of programs to share video, audio, data and text for real-time collaboration between people at different locations around the world.

The technology makes it possible for doctors to diagnose a patient thousands of miles away, students to learn a lesson from an instructor or researchers to collaborate on a project remotely.

This is the third version of the toolkit, supporting wall-sized display technology, detailed visualization of simulations, a streamlined user interface and other improvements. Since first being offered, the toolkit has been downloaded more than 20,000 times in 56 countries.

Access Grid is written in the Python programming language and features more "robust middleware" than the previous version, making it easier for software developers to write applications to run on Access Grid, said Thomas Uram, technical lead for the Access Grid effort with the Futures Laboratory at Argonne.

In addition, the new version employs some of the most common Internet protocols in use, including SSL (secure socket layer) for security, FTP (file transfer protocol) for data transfer, the Jabber instant-messaging platform and XML (extensible markup language) for describing data.

The increased bandwidth afforded by grid computing and the improved interactive features of the software enhance the collaborative environment even when collaborators are miles, or even oceans, apart, said Uram.

"Interrupting works, arguing works" to advance research, said Uram. "We see things that can happen when people are comfortable communicating with each other."

InSORS Integrated Communications Inc. has developed commercial applications based on the open source toolkit, said Jim Miller, president of the research and education sectors within inSORS.

"What I've seen is that it improves the stability and usability of the system," said Miller of the latest upgrade. "There are more controls so you can bring in more people, share more software applications and have a more robust experience."

By using grid computing architecture, multiple servers in different locations can "share the load balance," during a session, he said.

One of inSORS' applications is at a National Institutes of Health research program on allergies and infectious diseases. Participants can collaborate from any of 10 regional research centers and 8 to 10 universities around the country, he said.

Argonne National Laboratory, which is managed by the University of Chicago for the DOE's Office of Science, conducts basic and applied scientific research.

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