Making Sense of Cyberinfrastructure

By Jan Zverina, San Diego Supercomputer Center, University of California, San Diego

August 17, 2015


Reference Architectures Can Help Make Sense – and Science – Out of Computing Cyberinfrastructure, NSF’s Jim Kurose Tells XSEDE15 Attendees

Cyberinfrastructure. If there’s one word that’s likely to create confusion both within the scientific research community and among the public at large, this may be it. Yet the concept of cyberinfrastructure is at the very core of the nation’s top scientific research priorities, and the National Science Foundation is firmly committed to continuing to make cyberinfrastructure resources available to researchers across the nation.

While the term often comes with what Jim Kurose, assistant director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) for Computer & Information Science & Engineering (CISE), describes as “confusing” terminology – even to researchers across science and engineering disciplines – he says there is no doubt to the benefits of cyberinfrastructure as both an integrated resource and means for today’s researchers to push forward the boundaries of their disciplines.

“We have an Administration that’s been really big on pushing national research priorities that have a lot to do with computing,” Kurose told attendees at the 2015 eXtreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE) conference in St. Louis, Mo., in late July. “We have the big data initiative, the national robotics initiative, and the BRAIN initiative… all with cyberinfrastructure playing a critical role. There’s also secure cyberspace, education, and workforce development. These are things where computing and cyberinfrastructure are centrally involved.”

Jim Kurose, assistant director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) for Computer & Information Science & Engineering (CISE)

The NSF defines cyberinfrastructure as a dynamic ecosystem consisting of advanced computing systems, data, software – and, most importantly, people – all linked by high-speed networks that allow researchers to innovate and make discoveries that may not otherwise be possible. Kurose, who began his current role at NSF in early 2015, sees the need for the Foundation to view cyberinfrastructure in its entirety as not only the pathway to scientific discovery, but as helping to drive the national economy and global competitiveness in key areas, such as advanced manufacturing, visualization, drug discovery, and personalized medicine.

“Clearly, we’ve moved and evolved from being really ‘big iron-focused’ to also worrying about data, networking, and also security and software,” Kurose told XSEDE attendees. “There is the notion of this important interplay between industry, federal government, and academia in the area of computing as well as cyberinfrastructure.”

Such collaborative cyberinfrastructure is already transforming research frontiers, Kurose said, citing examples such as EarthCube, the Research Data Alliance, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) project.

Rolling Their Own

The challenge, according to Kurose, is to create ways for scientists to leverage cyberinfrastructure resources that already exist, and one solution lies in what he calls reference architectures or models.

“Reference models are really all about talking to other people about what you’re doing so they can see their place in the larger picture of what you’re doing.” he said. Otherwise, he noted, cyberinfrastructure can just be confusing to some researchers as well as decision-makers inside and outside the research community.

“The notion of reference architectures… is a way for us to accelerate the science by letting the scientists understand where they can fit into this larger picture, where they’re going to have to do some work on their own, and where they can reuse things that others before them have done,” Kurose said, adding later that “I see this as a very bottom-up process.”

“We at the National Science Foundation should think about these reference architectures, what we are doing across the Foundation, and what cyberinfrastructure exists out there so that folks who want to use cyberinfrastructure don’t roll their own,” he said. “While some specialization may be needed, they should know what’s already available to them so they can leverage the work that communities such as XSEDE have already done.”

Kurose praised the XSEDE organization, the result of a five-year, $121-million project  supported by the NSF, for its work in advancing science by promoting cyberinfrastructure through various programs including education, outreach, and training.

“What XSEDE is accomplishing is really remarkable, and its ecosystem is unparalleled,” Kurose said. “The goal here is about making cyberinfrastructure available to the science community, and XSEDE is a community event for people in the trenches and doing the work, including the Campus Champions and students.”

Kurose also noted that while demand among researchers for XSEDE resources and expertise has been increasing, the distribution of the type of demand is changing as well, including areas such as social, behavioral, and economic sciences, which has seen exponential growth in the use of cyberinfrastructure as a means for accomplishing research. “This is all a measure of the success of the type of cyberinfrastructure that you folks are making available to the country.”

In discussing future challenges across CISE and NSF, Kurose said that sustainability is a constant subject of discussion.

“We are discussing this on a daily basis,” he said. “This is sustainability having to do with people, software, and hardware. They all have different sustainability lifecycles and we need to be thinking seriously about what’s the right timeframe to be making investments in order to provide that kind of stability, while at the same time allowing for change and allowing for innovation.”

Related Links:

National Science Foundation


Jim Kurose

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