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A Grand Convergence
Essential, Not Optional
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Image of HPWREN Relay. Click for larger image.

This animation depicts a hypothetical researcher using a well-established cyberinfrastructure to apply the power of the world's highest-performance digital resources

Credit: Animation by Nicolle Rager, National Science Foundation.
Simulation Image by John Dubinski, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, University of Toronto.
Telescope Image by Todd Boroson, NOAO/AURA/NSF

Image of HPWREN Relay. Click for larger image.

HPWREN's relay on Palomar Mountain, with smoke from the July 2003 Coyote wildfire rising in the distance. The HPWREN team established a wireless network link to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's operations camp for fighting the Coyote fire in northeastern San Diego County.

Credit: High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network (HPWREN)

A Grand Convergence

Cyberinfrastructure in Action

Cyberinfrastructure image for sidebar. Click for larger image. To iron out many of the technical wrinkles, the computer science community is collaborating with many potential beneficiaries in the scientific community and beyond to develop a number of ongoing NSF-supported cyberinfrastructure projects. Here are just a few:

Extensible Terascale Facility: This NSF-supported collaboration, commonly called the TeraGrid, is a multi-year effort to prototype a widely shared, comprehensive cyberinfrastructure for academic research and education.

Cyberinfrastructure image for sidebar. Click for larger image. Networked Infomechanical Systems: In NIMS, robotic sensors suspended from a network of cables move themselves around to monitor, for example, a mountain stream ecosystem from the ground to the treetops.

Virus War Games: The DETER project allows researchers to study cybersecurity issues for Internet infrastructure and develop defense mechanisms in a controlled environment.

Data, Tools, Community: Unidata provides software infrastructure, data services and collaboration technologies as part of building a community for acquiring, organizing and using geoscience and geographic data.

Essential Privacy: Because of the proliferation of online sensitive data, the PORTIA project focuses on the technical challenges of handling sensitive data and the policy and legal issues facing data subjects, owners and users.

Crisis Response: Project RESCUE is transforming the way responding organizations gather, manage, use and disseminate information within emergency response networks and to the general public.

Cyberinfrastructure image for sidebar. Click for larger image. Wireless Without Limits: The HPWREN and ROADnet projects extend wireless research and education networks to remote astronomy observatories, Indian reservations and even ocean-going vessels.

Cyberinfrastructure is an idea that has emerged over the past decade or so from some basic technological realities:

  • The Internet has become far more than an e-mail carrier;
  • Microchip technology is filling our homes, our cars, and even our pockets with ever-shrinking computing devices; and
  • Databases are piling up information faster than anyone can make sense of it all.
  • The convergence of these and other trends have led researchers to envision a tightly integrated, planet-wide grid of computing, information, networking and sensor resources--a grid that we could one day tap as easily as we now use a power socket or a water faucet.

    That analogy is the source of the name, “cyber-infrastructure,” and is quite apt. Modern researchers are coming to depend on cyberinfrastructure, even in its current embryonic form, in much the same way that modern society relies on its physical infrastructure to provide electricity, water, telephones and roads. In many disciplines, moreover, the results promise to be as revolutionary as the coming of water and electric power was for our cities.

    With a well-established cyberinfrastructure, individual researchers will have the power of the world's highest-performance digital resources at their disposal. And teams of researchers will attempt to answer questions that had previously been unapproachable because the requirements were too much, too hard, too long or too complex.

    "New instrumentation, data-handling and computation capabilities will expand the horizons of what scientists can study and understand," said Margaret Leinen, head of NSF's Geosciences directorate. "Cyberinfrastructure is empowering a new generation of researchers in their quest to unravel how the world around us works."

    In environmental science for example, cyberinfrastructure combines computing, information management, networking and intelligent sensing systems into powerful tools for investigating the natural world and the human-built environment. The full complexity of the environment, from the molecular scale to the planetary, requires collecting and analyzing large volumes of data, performing experiments with computer models and bringing together collaborators from many disciplines. For example, as part of cyberinfrastructure, large-scale sensor networks or experimental instruments could feed real-time data streams into vast data grids where they can be funneled directly into ongoing computational simulations or shared as a community resource.

    Nearly all scientific disciplines grapple with similar challenges in managing and analyzing vast amounts of data and complex processes across many scales. "The emerging cyberinfrastructure that NSF supports is a product of the scientific community's demands for and reliance on information and communications technologies," said Peter Freeman, head of NSF's Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) directorate.

    Cyberinfrastructure has become a common theme throughout NSF, and every directorate has funded or is exploring cyberinfrastructure-related projects. The NSF's larger goal for a national cyberinfrastructure is to provide the information technology and knowledge management resources needed to tackle the problems at the frontiers of all science and engineering disciplines.

    By David Hart

    Next: Essential, Not Optional

    Cyberinfrastructure A Special Report