Harvard University and IBM are developing a university-wide computing grid for student and faculty research, data sharing and collaboration in life sciences, engineering and applied sciences.

The "Crimson Grid" will be based on OGSA (Open Grid Services Architecture) and is expected, eventually, to be available to other universities in the region, said Robert Eades, IBM's worldwide executive for academic, government and health in the company's life sciences division. The grid also will be part of a Massachusetts biotechnology grid.

Harvard and IBM will develop and pre-test tools and protocols for the grid. Harvard is receiving an IBM Shared University Research award as part of the initiative and will receive e-Server systems for a blade centre that will power the grid. Harvard's Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences' IT group, along with IBM computer scientists, will implement and build the Grid Reference System Implementation, which is the grid's core development environment. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Harvard University Information Systems will provide the network backbone service.

The reference implementation can then be shared with other universities, agencies or groups interested in developing a grid, but that perhaps lack the time or expertise to develop such a computing system, Eades said.

"The really key benefit (of the project) is going to be having an easy-to-use, easy-to-deploy grid reference implementation," he said. Often, customers will take such an implementation to develop a grid and then buy commercial products for use in the grid - in the case of life sciences that could be relational database software, he said.

Grids are an emerging networked-computing method particularly useful in areas such as sciences and engineering that are compute intensive, where massive amounts of data are accessed and analysed. The commonly used analogy is to electrical utilities, where power is switched on only when it is needed. Although a grid system might be complex, involving many machines in many locations, the user is meant to "see" just a single virtual environment, akin to how the Internet works with servers contacting other servers each time a user accesses a Web page. All of that happens in the background. Grids can also tap the computing resources of machines that are not otherwise in use at that moment, taking advantage of all of the power that is available in the system.

"We tend to make it sound like it's all one grid," Eades said. "It's really grids of grids."

The Crimson Grid is expected to enable collaborative research by faculty and students across disciplines, as well as data sharing. The grid has the potential to offer tools "to solve any type of problem, from a complex literature search to mining the genome," Jayanta Sircar, chief information officer and IT director at Harvard's Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said in a statement.

"Crimson" is the nickname of Harvard athletic teams, the name of the school newspaper and the colour most associated with the university.