In the nation's heartland -- a sparsely populated, rolling hilled, amber waves of grained, agrarian ideal -- America exists in a different way.

Tradition reigns and contentment is pervasive. Life is by no means easy, but that seems only to prove the theory that those who live the rural life do so out of choice -- out of love.

And the theory may be true.

Americans have always had a soft spot for their pastoral roots, and city-dwellers everywhere long to "get away from it all."

But there's a problem in the idyllic countryside.

As computers, Internet technology and high-speed communications shrink the world and create an increasingly global economy, many rural educators, manufacturers, farmers and citizens find themselves isolated in a way they never envisioned.

Over the past few years of national economic hardship, North Carolina suffered more than most. With a largely rural economy based on agriculture, textiles, furniture and clothing, North Carolina workers were devastated by layoffs due in large part to the specter of free trade.

There are nearly 87,000 former factory workers in the state, and "NAFTA" tends to drop off their tongues as distastefully as week-old boiled peanuts. Many of them blame the North American Free Trade Agreement for shipping thousands of manufacturing jobs to foreign lands rife with low-paid workers and nearly nonexistent government regulation.

But North Carolina has a history of forward thinking. Indeed, North Carolinians severed ties with England a year before the other colonies stood behind the Declaration of Independence.

Now, with the help of the University of North Carolina (UNC) Office of the President, MCNC, the state's Rural Internet Access Authority (RIAA) and other high-profile supporters, North Carolina is enlisting technology to forge a promising and all-inclusive economic future.

Spurred by a recent RIAA-sponsored report that estimates grid computing will give the state a $10 billion economic boost during the next seven years, MCNC and the UNC Office of the President recently launched the North Carolina Grid Computing Initiative.

Funded by $6 million from MCNC -- a nonprofit founded by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1980 to stimulate technology-based economic development -- the grid will begin as a tool for university-based researchers, but with luck, will mature into the state's economic development savior.

"Our mission has always been economic development through deployment of advanced technology and research," said David Rizzo, chief executive officer of MCNC. "We think grid technology will be a big asset for North Carolina in terms of economic development."

With one of the first fully deployed computer grids in the nation, North Carolina would, according to Rizzo, become a leader in attracting new businesses, as well as university faculty members "who want to work in a leading-edge environment."

Heralded by many as the technological wave of the future, grid computing harnesses the unused power of many standard PCs to create a virtual supercomputer. Still an emerging technology, grid computing doesn't rely on one large, centralized machine to provide computing muscle. It uses sophisticated software to divide tasks among multiple computers, which process the jobs in parallel.

To complete complex computational tasks, several average, inexpensive PCs from almost any manufacturer can join the grid. In a virtual sense, the pooled resources appear as one large system.

Computers linked in a grid might be in the same location, or scattered throughout a campus, city, country or the world. Software allows grid users to access the unused processor cycles of dozens or even thousands of computers.

Bumps in the Road

Problems with grid computing stem partly from the fact that solid grid standards are not yet established. Like the early Web, grid computing will likely explode once policies, protocols and standards coalesce.

Kris Middaugh  |  Staff Writer