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Google steps into academic storage

Beth Pariseau
As Google Inc. continues to diversify its business, one of its newest projects has been to step in with portable hard drives in imaging-heavy academic fields where networks fear to tread.

The inspiration for Google's academic storage initiative is called the Archimedes Palimpsest, led by a group of independent academics working with the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore where the 10th-century manuscript has been stored since its purchase by a private owner at a Christie's auction in 1998. The goal of the project, according to program manager Michael Toth, is to have images of each of the codex's pages available to the public and scholars around the world to view.

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To accomplish this, the group of academics from various institutions, who Toth describes as "weekend warriors," has been painstakingly recreating the ancient manuscript, the earliest known copy of one of the oldest mathematics and science texts in history. Each line of ancient Greek text must be recovered using ultraviolet imaging from underneath a religious manuscript overwritten on the codex in the 12th century.

So far, the project has 174 "bifolia" -- images of the book open on a table, showing two pages. Each of these images takes up approximately 400 GB of storage space, according to Toth.

Enter Google -- last year, at a presidential awards ceremony for technology, members of the Archimedes project crossed paths with a technology evangelist from the search engine giant. The meeting turned out to be serendipitous, as the Archimedes academics were confronting the problem of how to make their large repository of data accessible to the public and other researchers.

Conventional networks wouldn't work, according to Toth. "If you're talking about an independent academic in England working on conventional Internet, they're not going to be able to flip back and forth between two of the images, which is something they want to do," he said. "Even a classics department at an institution isn't going to have the bandwidth for that."

Google, meanwhile, has offered its services in two areas, according to Toth: one, to send out portable JBOD arrays for the Archimedes images to be loaded on to, receive the data back at Google headquarters and manage its distribution to other academics; and two, to index the data spatially using Google Maps, possibly for display in compressed form online. The project is also involved with the Google Books program, which is indexing books for search online in partnership with a number of libraries and academic institutions around the country.

"We looked at our images, which were taken with a camera positioned above the book lying flat on a table," Toth said of the integration with Google Maps, "and we wondered, what's the difference between this and a satellite looking down at the Earth?"

Some members of the project are working on a translation that will be available in book form later this year, he said, but scholars will want to compare it against the visible text on the ancient codex -- something making it searchable with Google Maps will make possible, Toth said.

Not a public offering … yet?

The Archimedes Palimpsest was the first project that Google got involved with, but has also begun providing portable storage to a few other projects as well, including images from the Hubble telescope.

Right now, according to Chris DiBona, open source program manager for Google, the service is not open to the public. "We plan to continue working with scientists and other academics with large datasets," DiBona wrote in an email to SearchStorage.com. "This is not a service targeted at the consumer or business market."

Meanwhile, according to Toth, the Archimedes researchers are hoping to make their information as public as possible, and said there's a "handshake agreement" with Google to make that happen next year.

"We're making this available to any information providers who want to distribute it," Toth added. "We don't want to see anyone latch onto this as a product."


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