In the 1980s “internetworking protocols” allowed us to link any two computers, and a vast network of networks called the Internet exploded around the globe. In the 1990s the “hypertext transfer protocol” allowed us to link any two documents, and a vast, online library-cum-shoppingmall called the World Wide Web exploded across the Internet. Now, fast emerging “grid protocols” might allow us to link almost anything else: databases, simulation and visualization tools, even the number-crunching power of the computers themselves. And we might soon find ourselves in the midst of the biggest explosion yet.

“We’re moving into a future in which the location of [computational] resources doesn’t really matter,” says Argonne National Laboratory’s Ian Foster. Foster and Carl Kesselman of the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute pioneered this concept, which they call grid computing in analogy to the electric grid, and built a community to support it. Foster and Kesselman, along with Argonne’s Steven Tuecke, have led development of the Globus Toolkit, an open-source implementation of grid protocols that has become the de facto standard. Such protocols promise to give home and office machines the ability to reach into cyberspace, find resources wherever they may be, and assemble them on the fly into whatever applications are needed.