The birthplace of the internet is all set to unveil the latest revolution in communication technology – a super-fast information network capable of downloading data at 10,000 times the speed of a typical broadband connection, modestly called ''the grid''. This amazing technology has been developed to complement an even more amazing piece of technology, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) developed by CERN.
The Internet's birthplace
CERN is the French name for the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and it is the world's largest particle physics laboratory, situated in the northwest suburbs of Geneva on the border between France and Switzerland. The convention establishing CERN was signed on 29 September 1954. From the original 12 signatories of the CERN convention, membership has grown to the present 20 member states. Eight other nations have observer status. India is one of them.
The Internet was originally created to exchange data within CERN and collaborating research institutions; but with the introduction of hypertext in the form of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee, often credited as the father of the modern Internet, the research network grew into its present form.
Internet and World Wide Web – are they the same thing?
The Internet and the World Wide Web are not one and the same. The Internet is a collection of interconnected computer networks linked by copper wires, fiber-optic cables, wireless connections, etc.
In contrast, the Web is a collection of interconnected documents and other resources, linked by hyperlinks and URLs. The World Wide Web is one of the services accessible via the Internet, along with various others including e-mail, file sharing, online gaming, etc.
However, for all practical purposes and in everyday conversation, they are considered one and the same. In fact, dictionaries and thesauruses often fail to make any distinction.
What will the LHC achieve?
The LHC, the largest particle accelerator in the world, is being created to smash particles together at speeds approaching those of light, to recreate the conditions of the universe's first moments of birth during the Big Bang, and hopefully unveil the secrets of creation.
The LHC is a huge underground circular tunnel spanning 27 kilometres across the two countries of France and Switzerland, and cost a whopping $8 billion dollars to build. The construction was spread over 15 years, and is expected to start operating from May this year.
''We are extremely excited about our experiment. It is the biggest experiment in the world and we hope we are going to understand all sorts of things like the origin of mass and what is the dark matter in the universe,'' said theoretical physicist Professor Malcolm Fairbairn at CERN. The experiments will also seek to locate the Higgs boson, an elusive particle which theoretically gives matter mass.
Need for a new Internet
However, what will interest the common people more is the new communication network being developed to handle the prodigious amount of data the LHC experiments are expected to produce – a staggering 39,200 terabytes or the equivalent of 56 million CDs yearly. To handle and analyze such amounts of data, the Internet, originally developed in CERN on telephone-based technology, proves to be woefully inadequate.
As the LHC is an international project, it is necessary that data be shared among participating institutions. Fibre optic cables run from CERN to 11 other research institutes around the world. Each of these centres connects to existing high-speed academic networks.
''We need so much processing power, there would even be an issue about getting enough electricity to run the computers if they were all at CERN,'' Tony Doyle, technical director of the grid project, said. ''The only answer was a new network powerful enough to send the data instantly to research centres in other countries.''
The creation of the new Internet
Hence, ''the grid''. The grid is a kind of parallel Internet, consisting of 55,000 servers connected to each other using fibre optic cables and modern routers. Fibre optics, utilizing the principle of total internal reflection of light, transfer data at much, much faster speeds than conventional Internet which largely operates through telephone lines and coaxial cables.
As a result, computers on the grid are able to send entire movies to personal computers in seconds, rather than minutes or hours, and could enable holographic video calls and online gaming involving hundreds of thousands of people. When this network transcends the world of research into everyday life, the dream of a super fast Internet where you can play movies the moment you start downloading them may well come true.
''The history of the internet shows you cannot predict its real impacts," said Doyle. "But we know they will be huge.''