French government heavily invests in powerful computing and high-speed networks for competitive research

Paris 07 March 2002The French Ministry of Research has turned the access for researchers to larger computer systems and information and communications technologies into a first-class priority. Whatever the scientific disciplines may be, ranging from physics to medicine or social sciences, the use of powerful information tools has become indispensable to the knowledge progress and to its effects on society, pleaded Catherine Roucairol, representative of the French Ministry of Research, at the Fourth DataGrid Conference in Paris. The understanding of large climatological or economic phenomena as well as the analysis of the human genome and matter in general require the increasing use of the most powerful computers in the world and the largest data storage capacities. High-performance tools combined with the use of high-speed networks constitute the necessary equipment for scientific research. International competitivity and the efficiency of the French Research are directly depending on it.


Challenged by these issues, the Ministry of Research since four years has sustained a systematic policy to intensify the development of information tools in France. Mrs. Roucairol cited the re-installation and co-ordination of the large national computing centres, the reinforcement of the regional centres, the installation and renewal of hardware in the laboratories and at the important academic sites. In addition, the French Ministry also massively relaunched and expanded the national and educational telecommunications network, and the research and technology to allow general access to the high-speed networks such as Renater 2 bis.

The speaker equally announced the preparation of Renater 3 which will put France at the European level with regard to optical fibre technology and a core network of 2,5 Gigabit/s and hubs of 155Megabit/s which will guarantee an increased quality of service and a connection to the large European and international research networks.

This policy requires a budgetary effort for management and equipment of some 45 million euro annually for Renater and the two large national computing centres alone, which are CINES, the National Computing Centre for Higher Education in Montpellier and IDRIS, the Institute of Development and Resources for Scientific Computing, a service unit of CNRS in Orsay.

The national centres CINES and IDRIS have been established to provide all academic researchers and organisations with Teraflop computing capacity. The machines should be among the best and the most diversified available at present and offer a variety of architectures (vector or parallel) in order to better meet the application needs. Their management requires a staff with sufficient and competent members, highly qualified to deliver a superior quality of service, a short response time and major security.

The acquisition of high-performance parallel computers is out of reach for academic and laboratory budgets taking into account their priorities. Only the government can pay this advanced hardware. The large budget awarded to both national centres, rising to more than 20 million euro annually, has enabled each of the centres in 2002 to match the power of the principal German site, located in Munich.

As far as the cumulated computing power is concerned, France will be in fourth place worldwide after the USA, Japan and Germany. This position is not only important to benefit researchers with the same tools as the other European researchers and thus maintain the competitivity of the French research but also to offer to the French teams an expertise and know-how which they could not acquire on machines of a lesser capacity.

In 2000, the computing power of CINES and IDRIS has been increased with hundreds of Gigaflop/s (billions of floating point operations per second) to prepare in 2002 the upgrading to Teraflops (1000 Gigaflop/s or a thousand billions of floating point operations per second) and to face the ever increasing user demands. This computing power will allow to systematise within the scientific activity the simulation of real phenomena, characteristic for complex or dangerous physical situations. The areas of Dynamic Fluids, Astrophysics, Geophysics, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology will have an efficient tool to meet both the size and complexity of the studied phenomena.

The establishment of regional computing facilities in large academic centres forms an essential link to complete the national computing picture. Mostly implemented in the academic centres of nine regions including Alsace, Aquitaine, Bretagne, Haute Normandie, Lorraine, Midi-Pyrénées, Nord-Pas de Calais, Pays de la Loire, and Rhones-Alpes, and funded by the Ministry with a regular annual budget of 1,2 to 1,4 million euro, by the universities, and possibly by the communities and organisations, these smaller centres regionally support the mission of the large national centres allowing a more refined user distribution of new high-performance computing technology. Their aim is to be interdisciplinary centres of exchange which enable to create local stimulation to use new high-performance computing techniques and to play an educative role focused on the technologies, languages and methods of parallel computing.

The current computing landscape in France has three levels, as the speaker outlined. The national backbone Renater consists of links connecting 26 points of presence regionally, and is managed by a GIP with member-organisations such as CNRS, INRIA, CEA, and CIRAD. The regional network serves metropolitan areas which depend from territorial communities. The academic or industrial network, the network for secundary education consisting of nodes connecting schools and colleges, certain administrative networks, or educational research organisations for other ministry departments including Culture, Agriculture, and Industry form the third layer.

In this way, more than 600 sites are connected to Renater. The Ministry of Research is particularly present with funding at the extreme levels which are Renater and the academic or industrial networks but also wants to support the second level allthough its role is less pre-dominant there, according to Mrs. Roucairol.

In 2001, the new infrastructure for the national Renater 2 bis network with connections at the international level, has been deployed. This puts France in a comparable position to its international partners. Renater 2 bis allows all sites with an activity in the domains of Research, Technology, Education, and Culture to exchange communications, and access public and private research centres, educational organisations worldwide, and the Internet.

The national network capacity has been increased substantially through nodes of 155 Megabits (155 million bits transmitted per second) and a core network of 2,5 Gigabits (2,5 billions of bits transmitted per second). Renater interconnects 26 regional points of presence and provides international links with an analogue capacity as the international networks of the same type such as research networks in the United States and Canada which have a speed of 10 Gigabit/s like Géant, the European network. The quality of services offered has been augmented with an architecture based on IP technologies, built-in security, and specific services to the targeted communities and in line with the technological evolutions.

High-performance applications which include the transmission of images for telemedicine for instance, demanding large data volumes, multi-service networks with telephone, video, multi-media, and classic numerical data features, and collaborative work in European and international projects, can thus be further developed. To keep abreast with state-of-the-art technology in its future version, Renater 3 which will be implemented at the end of 2002, will allow to transfer more high-speed nodes at the core of the network. The Renater GIP has been renewed in February 2002 for another three years.

In addition to a national coverage, Renater is linked to the large European research networks through Géant (nodes of 10 Gigabit/s used by more than 3000 education and research institutions in over 30 countries) and to the Nord-American continent with two high-speed connections, one of which is linked to an exchange node (STAR TAP) on which all Internet 2 networks in America and other countries including Canada, Japan, Korea, and Singapore are branched. Furthermore, the installation of a European "concentration point" that allows to directly interconnect Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, Africa, and Latin America, will contribute at the level of the European Union, to the balance of the worldwide "Network Web", essential for the scientific and cultural wing-beat in Europe.

The current issues are fourfold, according to Mrs. Roucairol. First, all universities have to be linked to 155 Megabits high-speed network nodes. Following the recommandations of the Numeric CIADT in July 2001, a special effort will focus on the institutes of higher education and research which are located at a remote distance from the regional Renater points of presence. This will be done in concerted action with the territorial communities who will guarantee the deployment of regional and metropolitan networks.

Second, development action will follow to the benefit of public and private research by increasing support to the R2IT projects. The Renater network is already a major RNRT platform offering services such as ATM, IPv4, IP multicast, and IPv6, and has a mission to ensure the migration of the IPv4 protocol to the IPv6 version, to meet the Internet needs of tomorrow, in collaboration with the public and private laboratories specialised in this domain.

Third, Renater will expand its consultancy role towards the territorial communities in the deployment of their infrastructures with recommendations regarding the maintenance of the quality of service across the local industrial networks, the regional networks, and the national infrastructure in order to guarantee a continuing service.

Fourth, Renater will extend its missions towards the educational sector when new educational methods are being developed in primary and secundary education which particularly depend on multi-media technologies. Renator will watch in general that network dimensions are able to cope with increasing data flows in the education and research areas.

The development of national centres combined with the use of high-speed networks such as Renater and Géant at the European level, has to enable the French research community to participate to the grid computing project. In order to face the ever growing needs of large-size applications, the national and regional centres have to contribute to the establishment of a national computing web. Through the sharing of costly resources, the grid concept will allow to mobilise computing systems installed across different geographically distributed sites and substantially expand computing and archiving capacities, from the moment that they are linked by high-speed networks such as Renater.

To make available this type of infrastructure to the French research community in a very fast way, and to perform the necessary experiments for implementation, the Ministry of Research has launched in April 2001 a Concerted Stimulative Action, granted with 2,25 million euro in 2001 and 3 million euro in 2002, to support the GRID project for the Globalisation of Computing and Data Resources. More news on the GRID project is available in the Primeur article French ACI Globalisation of Computing and Data Resources project refines grid computing concept.

Leslie Versweyveld

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