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By Denise Pappalardo,
Network World

August 15, 2003 | PlanetLab, with about 60 academic institution members and the backing of technology heavyweights Hewlett-Packard and Intel, is building a worldwide network that could ultimately accelerate life science research. Participating schools include Columbia, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, University of Cambridge, and University of Technology at Sydney. PlanetLabÕs network currently consists of 170 servers, at 65 sites in 16 countries.

PlanetLab is a network of computers, linked by the Internet, on which researchers can test networked applications and services such as search engines, distributed computation, data acquisition, and sharing of content. The goal is to provide a space to test technologies that will enable the Internet to develop further. Although much of the research involves experimenting with network mechanics, such as routing and naming protocols, the result should be an Internet more capable of handling the massive data demands of life science applications.

“The research community is full of ideas about new services they want to deploy ... The problem is, there is a very high barrier to entry,” says Larry Peterson, professor of computer science at Princeton and director of PlanetLab.

While similar to Internet2 in that both projects foster the advancement of cutting-edge technology, PlanetLab’s goal is to let researchers test their projects over a “real” network with outages and downtime, Peterson says. Internet2’s Abilene network spans only the United States and connects most sites using high-bandwidth dedicated lines. Abilene is a separate backbone that doesn’t depend on the Internet.

PlanetLab’s global network uses a combination of low-speed and high-bandwidth connections to the Internet for real-world application and service testing, Peterson says. The network is restricted to research organizations that “contribute nodes” to the network and maintain those servers.

PlanetLab could open many fields of research, says David Culler, a professor in computer science at the University of California at Berkeley and academic director of Intel Research at Berkeley.

“Distributed storage is particularly interesting as you start to integrate that with various kinds of sensors streaming information from the physical world,” he says.

Several PlanetLab projects involve accelerating the performance of grid technology. A team at Datalogisk Institut in Copenhagen, for example, is focused on improving grid resources to solve computation problems.

The group expects its network will grow aggressively to 300 nodes by year-end and to 1,000 nodes within two years. PlanetLab servers are based on Intel’s Pentium III processor and run a customized version of Red Hat’s Linux operating system. Intel Research has donated 100 servers to the project, and HP is giving 30. 

Peter Sayer from IDG News Service contributed to this story.

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