From the Web to the Grid and Beyond: Computing Paradigms Driven by High-Energy Physics

28 March 2014

By René Brun, Federico Carminati and Giuliana Galli Carminati (eds.)
Hardback: £62.99 €74.85 $99.00
E-book: £49.99 €59.49 $69.95
Also available at the CERN bookshop


To tell the story behind the title, the editors of this book have brought together chapters written by many well-known people in the field of computing in high-energy physics.

It starts with enlightening accounts by René Brun and Ben Segal of how things that I have been familiar with since being a postdoc came to be. I was intrigued to discover how we alighted on so much of what we now take for granted, such as C++, TCP/IP, Unix, code-management systems and ROOT. There is a nice – and at times frightening – account of the environment in which the World Wide Web was born, describing the conditions that needed to be present for it to happen as it did, and which nearly might not have been the case. The reader is reminded that ground-breaking developments in high-energy physics do not, in general, come about from hierarchical management plans, but from giving space to visionaries.

There are several chapters on the Grid (Les Robertson, Patricia Méndez Lorenzo and Jamie Shiers) and the evolution from grids to clouds (Pedrag Buncic and Federico Carminati). These will be of interest to those who, like me, were involved in a series of EU Grid projects that absorbed many of us completely during the era of “e-science”. The Worldwide LHC Computing Grid was built and is of course now taken for granted by all of us. The discussion of virtualization and the evolution from grids to clouds presents an interesting take on what is a change of name and what is a change of technology.

In another chapter, Carminati gives his candid take on software development – and I found myself smiling and agreeing. Many of us will remember when some sort of religion sprang up around OO design methods, UML, OMT, software reviews and so on. He gives his view of where this helped and where it hindered in our environment, where requirements change, users are developers, and forward motion is made by common consent not by top-down design.

Distributed data and its access is discussed in depth by Fabrizio Furano and Andrew Hanushevsky, who remind us that this is one of the most demanding sectors in computing for high-energy physics. A history of parallel computing by Fons Rademakers is interesting because this has become topical recently, as we struggle to deal with many-core devices. Lawrence Pinsky’s chapter on software legal issues delves into how instruments such as copyright and patents are applied in an area for which they were never designed. It makes for engrossing reading, in the same way that technical issues become captivating when watching legal drama on television.

It is not clear – to me at least – whether Giuliana Galli Carminati’s final chapter on “the planetary brain” is a speculation too far and should be politely passed over, as the author invites the reader to do, or whether there is something significant there that the reader should be concerned about. The speculation is whether the web and grid form something that could be considered as a brain on a planetary scale. I leave you to judge.

It is a highly interesting book, and I plan to read many of the chapters again.


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