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Summer 2002

Metaportal for a megatrend:
New Visualization Lab is up and running

by Lynda Lester
NCAR Scientific Computing Division

Down the hall from the Computer Room in NCAR’s Mesa Laboratory, there’s a 1,000-square-foot (90-square-meter) room with surround sound and amethyst Whisper Walls. A year in the making, the new NCAR Scientific Computing Division (SCD) Visualization Lab is a complex facility that combines visual supercomputers (machines tailored for graphics-intensive use) with a next-generation, electronic collaboration environment—a virtual meeting center connecting universities, other research labs, and NSF.
NCAR director Tim Killeen shares his excitement about wildfire research with middle school students in the Vislab—and with other students watching from AccessGrid sites across the nation—as part of a National Science Foundation event for Global Science and Technology Week. Participating at NSF are (inset, left to right) White House science advisor John Marburger, moderator David Heil, and NSF director Rita Colwell. (Photo by Cindy Schmidt; inset photo by Peter West.)

The facility is a major step forward from the old Vislab, which was a limited space tailored to individuals and small groups exploring data housed on site. Like the old lab, the new one offers premier capabilities for scientific visualization—but the end products are bigger, better, and brighter.


The flagship visual supercomputer that drives the room is an SGI Onyx 2/Infinite Reality code-named magic, with dedicated, parallel graphics engines. The lab also features a second SGI visual supercomputer, several midrange visual workstations, and a collection of custom Intel-based PC systems, along with three terabytes of RAID-5 (Redundant Arrays of Inexpensive Disks) storage, nine gigabytes of physical memory, gigabit Ethernet communications, and connections to NCAR’s Mass Storage System.

These computational resources, networked to five high-resolution projectors and a 24-by-9–foot (8-by-3.5–meter) projection screen, give researchers the capability to visualize massive data sets and numerical models. At the same time, the sound-absorbent walls and muted amethyst color scheme make the lab a pleasant and contemplative place to work.

But perhaps the most exciting part of the facility, according to Don Middleton, manager of SCD’s Visualization and Enabling Technologies Section, is that it’s a metaportal—a link to many other links, to other organizations and media environments, to vast realms of simulated and observed scientific data. The Vislab allows NCAR and university researchers to interact simultaneously in real time with groups scattered around the world.

AccessGrid: Teleconferencing on steroids

The Vislab is a node in the new electronic collaboration environment called the AccessGrid, a framework developed jointly by the U.S. Department of Energy and NSF to foster geographically distributed scientific research. The AccessGrid is an ensemble of network, computing, and other resources that supports group-to-group human interaction. It’s one aspect of a broader phenomenon—a megatrend—increasingly referred to as the Grid.

Meeting over the AccessGrid to discuss possible uses of the grid for the atmospheric sciences community are colleagues from five institutions: Argonne National Laboratory, NCAR, NSF, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (Photo by Carlye Calvin)

According to Middleton, the Grid is a body of technologies that enables distributed supercomputers, storage systems, data sources, and applications to be used as a unified resource regardless of location. "A central Grid concept is to form virtual organizations, large or small—the atmospheric sciences or global change communities, the CCSM [Community Climate System Model] or WRF [Weather Research and Forecast] communities—even people brewing beer."

The AccessGrid builds upon multicast technology, high-bandwidth networks, and an array of audio, video, and specialized PCs to encourage the development of virtual communities. An enormous screen at each location has the ability to display multiple windows, one (or several) for each of the other participating sites. This enables attendees to see, hear, and speak to each other.

"There’s a lot of real estate on that projection screen," Middleton says. "You’re not seeing a little thumbnail image on a workstation—it’s a wall. The large display area makes it more immersive. Life-size human beings are talking back at you, they’re eating lunch and rattling potato chip bags. You can see the body language. It’s human scale, it’s personal. There’s a strong sense of presence—and that translates to real, meaningful interactions among people."

Meeting across the miles

The interactions facilitated by the AccessGrid can take the form of large-scale distributed meetings, collaborative research, seminars, symposia, lectures, tutorials, or training. Indeed, the AccessGrid node at NCAR has already been used for high-level strategic planning sessions, workshops on collaboration technology and code optimization, and a meeting on terascale data strategies. The facility is frequently booked and requests for use are always coming in.

Every Thursday afternoon, NCAR researchers involved in the Earth System Grid project (a distributed effort to link climate modeling centers, users, models, and data) gather in the Vislab. There, they meet over the AccessGrid with collaborators from Argonne, Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, and Oak Ridge National Laboratories and the University of Southern California. NCAR’s Climate and Global Dynamics Division sponsored a large, distributed CCSM workshop in February and uses the AccessGrid for regular software engineering meetings, as do the Net100 and Web100 projects (two national efforts to increase network efficiency).

NCAR has also participated in special NSF events such as the recent Blue Ribbon Panel on Cyberinfrastructures, during which interviews were conducted over the AccessGrid last November and January. And on 29 April, NCAR helped host an AccessGrid gathering as part of Global Science and Technology Week (see photos). Middle school students from across the nation interacted with NSF director Rita Colwell and with John Marburger, science advisor to President Bush and director of the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy. "That was great," Middleton says. "These kids met virtually with two of the most prominent people in our federal science program."

NCAR director Tim Killeen, who acted as host for the kids and made a presentation on wildfire research, was also excited by the session. "Although the technology is still very new and not as robust as it will surely become," Killeen says, "the event showed the power of the AccessGrid to connect people from all age groups across the country in amazingly interactive, virtual ways."

A distributed revolution

Solving the so-called Grand Challenge problems in the environmental sciences—the remaining fundamental, systemwide questions—requires the pooling of advanced, multidisciplinary expertise. Increasingly, people located around the country and the globe need to work with each other. The Vislab’s AccessGrid makes it easier for NCAR and its partners to collaborate as well as to distribute scientific results.

Not to overstate the case, but this technology could revolutionize science, Middleton believes. "Nothing takes the place of gifted individuals coming up with new ideas, but most of the problems we need to solve today are solved in groups. The AccessGrid lets widely separated groups of people brainstorm, dream, and come up with ideas more often and easily than ever before. It’s exciting stuff. It opens up a world of opportunities and possibilities."

For busy researchers with heavy meeting schedules and overburdened budgets, being able to interact more with less travel time at lower cost is a tremendous advantage. And for those who have difficulty traveling—older people, parents with young children, and individuals with disabilities—the AccessGrid makes it possible to collaborate across the miles without undue hardship.

Last fall, the unifying importance of the AccessGrid became even more apparent. A workshop on advanced collaboratories had been scheduled in Italy, but after the September 11 disasters, many people didn’t want to fly. The meeting in Italy was canceled—but participants met virtually on the AccessGrid. "I walked into the Vislab and saw friends of mine from universities and other research labs," Middleton recalls. "They were asking, ‘How are you doing?’ It was amazing."

Reaching out to universities

Nearly a hundred AccessGrid sites have been built around the world, and the number is growing fast. There are AccessGrid nodes in Canada as well as Asia, Europe, and South America; there’s even one at the South Pole. Some sites have multiple nodes; NCAR, in fact, is about to construct a second node at its Foothills Laboratory, across town from the Mesa Lab.

AccessGrids are proliferating in government, industry, and the universities, but it is the last group that is coming on line most rapidly. In a noteworthy development, NSF recently funded eight university nodes as part of the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, a program aimed at engaging underrepresented groups.

"The new infrastructure gives NCAR a special chance to enrich and broaden our interactions with the university community," Middleton says. "NCAR is a creature of the universities, and our future and priorities are completely intertwined with them. We have a responsibility and a role to work with them hand in hand, and at the same time to leverage knowledge in support of research and education at all levels.

"The AccessGrid gives us new and unique opportunities for reaching out to universities and to underrepresented groups within them. We intend to play a prominent role in building up special capabilities for our community that make the AccessGrid even more useful from the R&D and education standpoint.

"This is a place where technology can really make a difference. It bridges geographical distances and gives us tools to do things differently—to work, learn, teach in ways we didn’t before. It’s not difficult to envision NCAR using this technology to directly contribute to Earth sciences curricula. We’ll be able to cooperatively explore data, visualize, hypothesize, write papers, and do proposals for exciting research."

SCD director Al Kellie adds, "This is another grand step in SCD’s long history of not only developing technology but providing systems that remain available, reliable, secure, and well managed over time for use by research projects large and small, no matter where they are located—a characteristic of SCD that sets it apart from other centers."

A National Collaboratory for Atmospheric Research

With all these horizons opening, the Vislab has evolved into a new kind of scientific workspace. It’s one of the first physical manifestations of NCAR’s expansion into a digital, Internet-based global community of research and education. It represents a decisive step into the arena of electronically mediated, group-to-group, wide-area collaboration. Killeen says, "We believe that such workspaces will become increasingly prevalent, not just at NCAR, but throughout the geosciences."

According to Middleton, "One of our long-term strategic plans, both from SCD’s Vislab perspective and from NCAR’s perspective, is to move into a leadership position as a collaboratory. A big part of our future is to be a front-runner in creating virtual communities, particularly for our domain.

"This has implications across the board. It means we will provide computing services, data visualization and analysis, and rich interactions between people—an Earth system research space in which partners from outside can draw seamlessly on our resources." One goal, he adds, is to develop new collaborative tools that make it possible, for example, to study terascale scientific data in these distributed environments.

"NCAR functions as a national center and an international leader in science," Middleton concludes. "This is a way of rethinking the letters in our acronym. We can become a virtual center. A lab without walls. A National Collaboratory for Atmospheric Research."

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Carlye Calvin
Last revised: Tues June11 17:05:07 MDT 2002