Scientists have long since inaugurated the Digital Age in particle physics, earth science, astronomy, and many other fields. But often researchers don't have facilities to handle the vast amounts of data they're creating.
For example, digital mammograms are more accurate than photographic film mammograms for diagnosing breast cancer. The problem is that every day US mammogram centers create an estimated twenty-eight terabytes of data...that's more than forty-five thousand CDs! Until now, nobody could figure out how to store all of that data, much less process it for use in diagnostics and medical research.
But a solution is in the works: The Digital Mammography Archive is an example of a new computing innovation called a "data grid." In the same way that the World Wide Web links computers for the purposes of sharing information, data grids link processors and storage disks so they can share computing power.
The Digital Mammography Archive will store and process mammogram data in linked computers all over the country. It will allow physicians to compare a patient's mammogram with previous mammograms, as well as run automated diagnosis programs. Researchers will use the grid's enormous processing power to study the effects of environment and lifestyle on breast cancer.
For now, most obstacles to data grids lie in creating software that will allow many computers to work together seamlessly, as if they were one large computer.
Privacy is also a concern, especially when medical records and other sensitive documents are involved. Some scientists say the grid is the biggest development in networking technology since the World Wide Web. We shall see! Someday your home computer might be connected to a grid.