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Stuck in the middleware

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Grid computing won't happen without glue to hold it together, as Michael Kenward finds when investigating middleware

It seems to be my lot in this slot to parade my ignorance of hot topics. My excuse is that the need to understand a new issue is a great incentive to venture out on to the web. Which is why I have been trying to pin down just what 'middleware' is all about. We first have to think about grid computing, which connects computers so that they can work together and operate as a distributed supercomputer. The computers in this grid can be anything that can contribute to the processing task to hand.

The hitch in this process is obvious to anyone who has tried to get their mobile phone to connect to their PC. There has to be something in the middle. Ever imaginative, the industry calls this 'glue' middleware.

As ever, the first challenge is to find a good user-friendly description of what middleware is about. One of the first I found describes it as 'Software that mediates between an application program and a network. It manages the interaction between disparate applications across the heterogeneous computing platforms.' This is at FOLDOC, the Free On-Line Dictionary of Computing, whose URL betrays its home at Imperial College foldoc.doc.ic.ac.uk. There may also be a mirror somewhere near you.

Another good starting point is at the National Science Foundation and the NSF Middleware Initiative (www.nsf-middleware.org). This tells us that: 'Middleware is software that connects two or more otherwise separate applications across the Internet or local area networks. More specifically, the term refers to an evolving layer of services that resides between the network and more traditional applications for managing security, access and information exchange' It then goes on to talk about applications, and that one goal is to let 'scientists, engineers, and educators transparently use and share distributed resources, such as computers, data, networks, and instruments'.

The US initiative is already at its fourth software release. (Download any that appeals to you from the web site.) The UK should get the first release from its equivalent organisation later this year. This is from the Open Middle-ware Infrastructure Institute, which opened for business at the beginning of the year in the Department of Electronics and Computer Science at Southampton University www.omii.ac.uk/

OMII is funded to the tune of 6.5 million for the first three years by the research councils in the UK. It is a part of the broader e-Science initiative, which has its own web site www.nesc.ac.uk/.

I came across OMII because I was writing about it for Southampton, which is how I came to talk to the new director, Dr Alistair Dunlop. He predicts that grid computing will start to make waves in the business world towards the end of this year, after a new set of standards starts to bed down.

Standards, says Dr Dunlop, are going to be important in middleware, which is why initiatives like the OMII and the NSF programme are so important. Without such initiatives, it would be all too easy for commercial pressures to prevail and to price academics out of the game. 'The academic community is going to be one of the driving forces here.'

When I asked Dr Dunlop for his own 'hot links', he came up with several, including Grid Computing Planet 'a popular grid computing website'. www.gridcomputingplanet.com/. Search on middleware and be prepared for many a hit. The heavy commercial emphasis here underlines the importance of the subject outside the scientific world. Both HP and IBM, which is involved in the OMII initiative, are heavily into middleware because of the boost it would give to their plans to create a market for 'utility computing', selling networked computer power rather than hardware.

Hardly a week goes by without an announcement from IBM. In March, the company made a lot of noise when it announced a set of middleware aimed specifically at carmakers.

There is plenty about the role of middleware in the business world on the IBM site, including various 'white papers'. A good place to start is www-306.ibm.com/software/info/automate/index.jsp. But if that has moved, just search on 'middleware'. Dr Dunlop also suggests the Globus Alliance, 'one of the larger academic grid middleware software providers'. Read some of the presentations on offer here and you can see examples of some of the applications that count as middleware. The Globus toolkit, 'an open source software toolkit used for building grids', has been around since 1998. There is a mass of practical advice and information here. www.globus.org

The European Union has not ignored middleware. The projects it supports in its Information Society Technologies (IST) give some ideas of the application areas where middleware might play a part. The GEMMS project, for example, explains itself. It stands for Grid-Enabled Medical Simulation Services. www.gemss.de

Another IST project is aimed at third generation mobile communications. Project OPIUM, Open Platform for Integration of UMTS Middleware, says that its key action is to 'validate the introduction of new wireless based applications in Europe - based on a combination of new wireless protocols'. www.ist-opium.org

The most important IST project from the point of view of middleware is the GridLab project, which has in its sights a set of serious challenges in scientific computing. GridLab supports a series of middleware projects. www.gridlab.org GridLab claims to be one of largest research undertakings in Europe in the development of application tools and middleware for the Grid environment.

The idea behind GridLab should appeal to computer users. With a focus on making computer resources throughout Europe available to the research community, it wants to make the grid transparent to users. You can keep in touch with GridLab by signing up for one of more than 30 mailing lists.