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August 9, 2011

NSF’s Seidel: ‘Software is the Modern Language of Science’

Jan Zverina

Edward Seidel, the former director of the National Science Foundation Office of Cyberinfrastructure, told attendees at TeraGrid ’11, held July 18-21 in Salt Lake City, Utah, that after more than four centuries of science being conducted at a painstakingly slow pace, today’s communications technologies and scientific advances are forcing a dramatic change–and acceleration–in all areas of science. At the heart of this change will be software.

The challenge for the NSF and the larger US science community is to come up with a cyberinfrastructure (CI) model that effectively brings together these advancing technologies. The XSEDE (Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment) program, now succeeding the TeraGrid project after 10 years, has the potential to play a vital role in shaping a blueprint for the nation’s CI initiative, said Seidel, currently the assistant director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the NSF.

The result of a five-year, $121 million NSF award, XSEDE is designed to be the most powerful collection of advanced digital resources and services in the world. It is the follow-on to the NSF-funded TeraGrid, which began in 2002. CI refers to an accessible and integrated network of computer-based resources and expertise that’s focused on enabling and accelerating scientific inquiry and discovery.

“We now have very small periods in time that are leading to very large changes in the amount of data, the amount of computation, and the amount of knowledge that is needed in order to carry out this kind of work,” said Seidel, also a professor with Louisiana State University’s departments of Physics and Astronomy and Computer Science.

Citing astrophysics as a prime example of one discipline undergoing this unprecedented pace of change, Seidel said that going forward, an “explosion” in data-driven science is going to lead to an even more dramatic rate of change.  Multiple approaches to observation, experimentation, computation, and data analysis need to be integrated to understand a single event, such as a gamma-ray burst.

“I think XSEDE probably marks the beginning of a national architecture with the capability of actually putting some order into all of this,” he said, noting that “we have the critical elements in place” but that “we need to think how to integrate all these different science activities in a multi-scale way.”

Still, Seidel noted that such radical changes in conducting research, collaborating, and archiving scientific results cannot be adequately addressed with the current incremental approach.

“The good news is that we have the beginnings of an architecture but the language differences are pretty severe,” he said, referring to differing terms and software used by researchers from one field to another.  In calling for the creation of a common software community, Seidel noted that “XSEDE can’t do all this alone, so we need to think about how to aggregate multiple resources coherently to do the kind of work we want.”

As technological advances fuel dramatic changes, Seidel said we now have a “cyber crisis” at many levels. One challenge, he said, is how to manage the exponentially increasing amounts of data generated from a myriad of digital resources.

“Every year we generate more data, not just more than we did last year, but in all years combined,” he said. He urged that we initiate a national discussion on how to communicate, collaborate, and integrate a wide range of research activities, even in real-time, to better analyze and respond to events such as natural or man-made disasters to generate significant benefits to society at large.

At the same time, this “data deluge” provides the opportunity for potentially very powerful collaborations on a national and even global scale. “We need to be thinking about developing cyberinfrastructure, software engineering, and capabilities to mix and match components, as well as data sharing policies, that really enable scenarios such as coupled hurricane and storm surge prediction, as well as the human response to such events,” he said.

In framing the various elements required to create an effective national cyberinfrastucture, Seidel said another challenge is how to leverage new technologies, especially within the realm of social networking, to develop and promote new ways of sharing scientific results via campus collaborations as well as partnerships at the state, federal, and international levels.

“We are thinking about ways to encourage the publication of more modern forms of scientific output,” he said. He suggested in organizing scientific data for multiple communities, new approaches that merge databases with wikis, in addition to using social networking media tools such as Flickr and Twitter, will be very powerful. He noted that there are even new programs that create openly writable information storage and search platforms, such as those discussed in posters at the conference.

“We need to make the world writable,” Seidel told TeraGrid ’11 participants, adding that “software is the modern language of science these days.”