Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Crossing borders

It often occurs to me that humans like to draw up frontiers, and that we do so not to keep others out, but because it is more comfortable to set limits to stay within, to mark one’s own territory, so to speak. Governments have their borders, landowners their hedgerows and townsfolk their privet fencing. This is my domain they say. In that way they’re much like scientists. Each has their topics, their speciality, their niche and that’s that. Sadly it’s often not until you cross those borders that you find new perspectives and new opportunities.

Companies, individuals and technologies all need to leave their comfort zones in order to advance. The post-it note is a famous example of this: Back in 1968 Dr Silver, a scientist at 3M invented a low-tack reusable glue. The invention was by accident and thought to be interesting, but not significant –after all, the scientists had been trying to make ever stronger glues. It wasn’t until 1974 that another 3M colleague realised the potential – first with a sticky bookmark and later as the post-it notes we know today. It was this new perspective, not the underlying technology that made the difference.

So what has this got to do with Grids and clouds? Well it was a small study conducted by one of my colleagues, Adrian Mouat, from the BEinGRID project, and published on's Grid Voices blog, that got me thinking about this. As he argued, the Grid was developed for science. Typical applications included large scale number-crunching in astronomy, particle physics, genome sequencing and so on. It crossed the boundary of academia into the realm of business and here evolved into the cloud. Could the cloud cross back over into the world of science, he wondered?

And what’s more, these thoughts of Adrian managed to cross another man-imposed frontier: between Europe and the United States. I was very pleased to see that this work of Adrian’s was picked up by the California-based grid and cloud focused HPCwire magazine and included in their HPC in the Cloud special edition published in November.

It is encouraging to see that people are probing such matters. Considering new uses, new perspectives, new ways of doing things, these are what drives innovation. It is equally encouraging to see that the significance of such thinking is recognised across borders. It is important that we don’t all think alike but it is equally important to remember to take that occasional look back from the other side of the fence.

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