Dixie Fix

The North Carolina Grid Initiative may be key in bolstering the Tarheel State's ravaged economy.

by / March 1, 2004
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.

Issues including security and administrative policy concerns must be addressed before grid computing can truly become ubiquitous.

PC owners participating in a grid want to be sure access to their unused computing cycles doesn't open other areas of their hard drives, and all grid users want some sort of established protocol for how grid resources are distributed.

At the moment, functioning computer grids primarily are used for research projects that require analysis of massive amounts of data.

Yet even with its current limitations, grid computing helps accomplish many noteworthy and important tasks, such as fighting AIDS and studying protein folding.

Economic Kick-Start
North Carolina hopes its grid initiative will bring similar important and economically beneficial research opportunities to the state's urban and more remote universities and colleges. Supporters also hope grid use will expand into the commercial marketplace and kick-start the state's sputtering rural economy.

"We would like to have an infrastructure that our middle market manufacturing companies can learn from," explained Rizzo. "The grid will allow researchers in remote parts of the state to conduct research on computing assets in more urban areas. Basically we're hoping for more entrepreneurial activity because one thing we know is that entrepreneurs like to start companies near where the technology was developed."

Several large companies, including IBM and Sun Microsystems, are heavily involved in developing tools to enable grid computing -- not surprising considering possible future grid users include manufacturers, retailers, health-care providers, banks and other financial companies, and even the lucrative video game industry.

Several pharmaceutical companies already use grid technology to perform data-intensive modeling to produce more effective drugs.

The hope of bringing new and renewed business activity to North Carolina's rural community is shared by Jane Smith Patterson, executive director of the state's RIAA.

"The economic impact of grids will be very important, not just in urban areas, but in rural areas as well," Patterson said. "It could help extend the livelihood of furniture and textile industries for 15 or 20 years, so it gives time to build a knowledge base in rural areas. It allows time to really join the knowledge society."

A 21st-century, state-size version of the 1930s federal Rural Electrification Administration, the RIAA was formed by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2000 to oversee efforts to provide rural areas with affordable high-speed broadband Internet access. The RIAA is supported in large part by $30 million in funds committed by MCNC and through cash or in-kind contributions from more than 80 other organizations.

Run by a group of dedicated workers overseen by Patterson, the RIAA has met or exceeded virtually all of its goals thus far.

In 2000, North Carolina ranked in the bottom 10 percent of the nation for Internet connectivity availability. One year later, dial-up Internet access was available through every phone connection in the state. By the end of 2002, 75 percent of North Carolina households had access to high-speed Internet, and the RIAA was forging ahead with plans to provide the same to every home in the state.

The RIAA also became involved in research projects that looked toward future technology issues -- thus the RIAA's sponsorship of a grid computing report.

"Grid computing is very important," said Patterson. "It's a positioning thing for North Carolina for the next 40 years so the state can be on the cutting edge of the use and distribution of high-performance computing resources."

Dr. Robert Cohen, author of the RIAA's Grid Computing: Projected Impact on North Carolina Economy and Broadband Use Through 2010, also believes grid computing may be the key to North Carolina's economic recovery.

"Grid computing has the potential to make North Carolina much more competitive in the marketplace," said Cohen. "Without it, they could fall even further behind."

Officials for the UNC Office of the President view the potential of grid computing in much the same way. The UNC system includes 16 campuses -- some located in fairly remote areas of the state. University leaders understand not only that a grid can bring high-speed, high-demand computing power to researchers at smaller campuses, but also that a grid can save money while doing so.

"Grids have the potential of helping us manage the cost of computing better by being able to utilize idle compute capacity throughout the system instead of buying more equipment," said Robyn Render, chief information officer for the UNC Office of the President. "It enables us to support each other by not having to replicate certain types of data and facilities for research and instructional purposes because people can share."

Grids are no abstract dream for UNC. In fact, the university system already has a functioning bioinformatics grid that is a collaborative effort between UNC Chapel Hill, Duke University, North Carolina State University and MCNC.

"We have some research projects in genomics and bioinformatics involving about a half-dozen researchers who are using the grid," said Render. "So we know we can at least build a multidomain grid. We need now to expand our work to be able to embrace other applications of grid technologies and involve other users and campuses."

Part of the Platform
Other applications are exactly what state officials and many others hope will revive North Carolina's hard-hit economy.

Democratic presidential hopeful and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards has long been concerned with his state's overall economic situation, as well as the needs of rural states in general.

Edwards' presidential platform includes a comprehensive plan to revitalize rural America. Part of the plan involves implementing a National Broadband Policy intended to provide small businesses and farmers with access to "the fundamental tools of competition in the 21st century."

"Certainly establishing the broadband infrastructure is critically important," said Edwards. "We need to do what we can to help local officials recruit technology-based businesses to rural areas so that jobs are there for the folks who have the training and want to stay in the area."

Edwards, like UNC officials, the RIAA and MCNC, said he's dedicated to making sure all students in North Carolina gain the computer savvy needed to compete in the future global job market.

"I've been pleased to work with the folks at NCEITA [North Carolina Electronics &
Information Technologies Association] over the last few years to secure federal funding to help fully wire one school each year so that these kids will have the latest and greatest technology," he said.

Edwards calls North Carolina's Grid Initiative "extremely important" and also believes it can help sustain the state's struggling manufacturing industries -- although he acknowledges they are likely to have a diminished role in the future.

"With the right trade policies and smart investments for the future, I believe there is a continuing role for textiles and other manufacturing industries in North Carolina. However, we can no longer afford to rely on them as our primary strategy for the future."

The future for the Tarheel State lies in the promise of technology, according to Edwards and others.

"Bringing high-speed Internet access to rural areas is extremely important," said Edwards. "It will mean increased educational and training opportunities for folks who live in these rural areas and will also mean more jobs in these areas."

At its heart, the grid initiative is about creating jobs in all areas of the state, but most especially its rural backbone. Should North Carolina's grid prove successful, it's likely that other states facing rural decline will follow suit, a trend that seems completely appropriate to Edwards, Rizzo, Render, Patterson and many others.

"I would say that for state governments in the future, grids are where it's going to be," said Patterson. "It's the most effective way to carry out large-scale computing. That's why this initiative is so very important."
Kris Middaugh Staff Writer