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Permanent contact with the rest of the world

Investment fostered advance in international cooperation

A piece of the distant Universe can be seen and studied in a room at the USP Campus, in São Paulo. At the Institute of Chemistry (IQ) of the University of São Paulo (USP), teachers and students of Astrochemistry simulate the atmospheric conditions of a star, to do research into molecular structures that only exist at exceptionally high temperatures. Carrying out an experiment of this kind in the real world would be impossible. Today, the researchers use the virtual world of computers to do what a short while ago was not possible. This is not all. They keep in permanent contact with their colleagues in other parts of Brazil and the world to exchange information and to save time and effort.

“The majority of the IQ’s research groups have links with researchers abroad and depend on a constant interchange of information”, comments the director of the institute, Paulo Sérgio Santos. They have at their disposal a good number of computers – there are about 900 of them, in the whole of the institute. But this would not be of much use unless they were connected to the world by a reliable high speed network. “A good deal of the problems involved in modern research in Chemistry and Biochemistry is highly interdisciplinary. They call for specialists from several areas. Often, a specialty is only found outside the institution, and, not unusually, in another country”, Santos says.

The Institute of Chemistry is merely a part of what is happening all over the university. After all, FAPESP’s investments in USP’s computer networks amount to R$ 27 million, out of a total of R$ 65 million invested in this module. “There has been a cultural change”, says the university’s deputy rector for research, Hernan Chaimovich. “Today’s researcher has become part of the world-wide network of knowledge.” In addition, the teacher has become more transparent. “Everything he has done and is doing becomes a part of the network”, he points out.

With a good network, one works better and more safely. The other heavenly bodies are not the only example of what can be simulated on the computers of the Institute of Chemistry. Nowadays, for example, even nitroglycerine can be simulated on their equipment. The work in the laboratories has become more rational. A major part of the preparatory work can be done ‘virtually’, saving time and making the practical lessons more efficient.

More savings are brought over from meetings over the network. The expenses and time spent on travel have been drastically reduced. “Often, three, four, five or six people, or even several groups meet to talk over the network”, says Professor Santos. Several researchers from the IQ are taking part in research that involves various institutions, like the Cancer Genome project. “This would be totally impracticable if we did not have a pretty nimble data transmission network”, the professor adds.

For the IQ’s director, having a network with these conditions is a basic requirement, today, for any kind of research. “It is the institute’s business card”, he ponders. “It opens up concrete possibilities for interaction, which makes the institution really competitive, especially in the areas at the cutting-edge research, where not all the specialists needed are to be found in the space of one laboratory”. Santos says that this is already reflected in the job market. “Nowadays, it is very difficult to hire a good specialist unless you have a good working infrastructure suitable for high level research.”

Researchers at the IQ believe that further progress will be brought about by new developments expected for the near future, like Internet 2, which will allow even higher speeds in connections abroad. “We have to admit that we are still much on the periphery, and not only from a geographical point of view”, says Santos. “Not everyone today has what it takes to be part in conferences and scientific symposiums.” The possibility of taking part in a system of videoconference, in real time, can improve the situation. “We will be close to where the really important things are going on”, he states.

The network has also made possible the more frequent use of remote access to equipment not available in all laboratories. This, for example, is the case of the supercomputers, machines that are capable of carrying our enormous complex calculations. The IQ accounts for more than 50% of the accesses made to the National Center of High Performance Processing (Cenapad in the Portuguese acronym) in São Paulo, according to the center’s latest report. This one of the five supercomputing laboratories created by the Ministry of Science and Technology to support research and development activities.

The supercomputer is accessed through the network. “This proves that it would be impracticable to do research without a high speed network”, remarks Pedro Soares de Araújo, a member of the institute’s information technology commission. Araújo values highly the access to publications through the network. “When I was a beginner to research, in the 60’s, it was a religious duty to go to the library twice a week, to read Current Contents, the most important scientific publication of the time”, he recalls. “We would first receive the titles of the articles. Afterwards, we would wait anxiously for two or three months to read the contents.”

Interminable exchange
The implementation of new technologies was not without a few difficulties. One example was the purchase of a router, equipment used to control the flow of data. The institute acquired a router of the latest generation from the United States. There was nothing like it in Brazil. Nor technicians to configure it. “We had to turn to the supplier for help”, recalls Araújo. “There was an endless exchange of e-mails. But we managed to configure the equipment.”

A well adjusted router is something basic for the proper functioning of a network like the institute’s. This equipment cuts the traffic into segments, to make it flow more quickly. In a comparison with traffic on an avenue, it keeps the vehicles that are going to turn left in the left-hand lane, and those that will turn right, to the right. Without it, there would be enormous and complicated traffic jams. The router therefore keeps the administrative traffic separated from the academic traffic. There is also a special route for the students’ research.

Today’s usage amounts to only 15% of the router’s capacity. But this level will probably not remain like this for long. “Traffic is increasing week by week”, Araújo states. He says that the institute makes forecasts for six months. But there has never been a half year when the forecasts were not exceeded. “We have gone from nothing to one of the largest networks in the state of São Paulo without most people noticing”, he points out.