Maryland Joins Megacomputer 'Cloud' Project

By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 9, 2007

It's called a cloud, and the University of Maryland is happy to be part of it.

Google and IBM announced yesterday they are partnering with Maryland, Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and three other universities to bring the power of huge clusters of computers -- or clouds -- to students and academic researchers.

"This is going to be the paradigm of the future," said Jimmy Lin, an assistant professor of information studies who is leading the initiative at Maryland. "The amount of information out there is growing at an exponential pace, and this way of doing computing is the only realistic way of keeping up with that."

Computer scientists say it is crucial for students to learn how to write software that can take advantage of clouds. The clusters -- dozens, hundreds or even thousands of computers processing information simultaneously -- have far-reaching applications in search, social networking and e-commerce. They enable users to sort through large quantities of data at light speed.

Google and IBM are making available up to 1,600 computers, in three locations, to the universities.

At Maryland, the cloud will be used to create a system for automatically translating text in difficult foreign languages such as Chinese and Arabic.

To build the system, Lin and colleagues plan to feed enormous amounts of foreign text and its English translation into a computer, which then analyzes the connections among the words to create rules for translations. In the past, he'd feed a batch -- hundreds of millions of words -- into a computer one morning, and then return the next day to see what the computer had come up with.

With the cloud, he said, "things that used to take a day to run now take about 20 minutes."

V.S. Subrahmanian, director of the Institute for Advanced Computer Studies at Maryland, said being part of the initiative "is a significant opportunity for us to test out algorithms we develop in the lab in a real-world, massive-scale setting."

He added that being part of the initiative raises Maryland's profile among the top computer science programs in the country. Other universities participating include Carnegie Mellon University, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Washington.

"We're trying to help students develop new technologies and methods that will help them break the single-server mindset," said Christophe Bisciglia, a senior software engineer at Google who is helping run the initiative.

In early tests of the cloud at the University of Washington, students showed on a map where news around the world was happening -- almost in real time. They also analyzed all of Wikipedia to find synonyms for words, and created a video illustrating how the collision between the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies would affect the 80,000 stars and galactic objects within them.

Michael R. Nelson, director of Internet technology and strategy at IBM, said he imagined future computers being smaller than a wristwatch. "You'd talk into this, your voice would be carried into the cloud, the cloud would do the voice recognition, and it would determine what you were asking for -- map directions, the nearest Chinese restaurant -- and then the information would come back to and be spoken through the speaker."

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