New NSF 'middleware' advances collaborative research and education
A new suite of software products that allows researchers to manage massive physics datasets online, simulate earthquakes via large "shake tables" over advanced computational "grids," and enjoy more secure on-line collaboration became freely available this week as part of a national initiative to develop and test software tools to make high-speed computer networks practical scientific tools. The National Science Foundation, through its National Middleware Initiative (NMI), is supporting development of the specially packaged and tested software. The term "middleware" refers to software and services that link two or more unconnected applications across the Internet. NMI's second release became publicly available this week at http://www.nsf-middleware.org.
NSF supports two NMI teams: The GRIDS Center (for "Grid Research Integration Deployment and Support") and the EDIT Consortium (for "Enterprise and Desktop Integration Technologies"). The GRIDS Center is a partnership of the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute (ISI), the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Chicago, the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The EDIT Consortium is led by Internet2, EDUCAUSE, and the Southeastern Universities Research Association (SURA).
Two NSF-funded physics projects--the Grid Physics Network (GriPhyN) and the International Virtual Data Grid Laboratory (iVDGL)--have created a Virtual Data Toolkit based on the GRIDS Center Software Suite, a part of NMI. The tool kit helps to simulate complex particle collisions and to identify clusters of far-off galaxies. With the help of NMI products, scientists can use a simple command to generate 150,000 simulated collisions or fine tune their cosmology calculations with the latest software advances.
"Collectively, the software and tools contained in NMI are a model for 21st Century collaboration," said Alan Blatecky, NSF's program director for NMI. "It is a good sign that large NSF projects like GriPhyN, the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) and the multi-site TeraGrid supercomputing system are coming to rely on NMI for stable software releases. The initiative fills a need the community has indentified for persistent middleware infrastructure to benefit research and enterprise computing."
Eight universities have been selected as NMI testbeds for early deployment. They include the University of Florida, the University of Virginia, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), the University of Alabama in Huntsville, the University of Texas at Austin, Florida State University, the University of Michigan, and Georgia State University.
These institutions have been among the first to actually use NMI software and services in practical situations, providing valuable information to NMI developers about how the tools mesh with campus infrastructure. Some of these existing applications include:
National Science Digital Library use of Internet2's Shibboleth (included in the new NMI release) as infrastructure for accessing customized or restricted content and services while protecting privacy. The tool for sharing resource across the World Wide Web will also offer significant future capabilities in digital-rights management and videoconferencing.
"After two months of using Shibboleth to manage Web course material at North Carolina State University, we saw an 80- to 85-percent drop in our help desk calls," said John Hopkins, a physics instructor at Pennsylvania State University. "That's an incredible return, freeing up instructors and staff for other responsibilities."
An important NMI goal is the integration of grid research environments with the campus enterprise. One example is KX.509, a tool that extends the widely used Kerberos campus authentication mechanism for use in grids. According to Jim Pepin, director of the Center for High Performance Computing and Communications (HPCC) at the University of Southern California (USC), successful implementation of KX.509 across USC's campus with NMI is a first step toward a broader use of the tool for grid computing at USC and in the wider academic community.
The University of Alabama at Birmingham is developing secure single sign-on and authorization services for administrative, teaching and research computing systems.
"Our users will benefit from NMI technology by seamlessly moving between email, administrative, courseware and research applications without having to remember a dozen username/password combinations," Sheila Sanders, Interim Vice President for Information Technology. "Today, we are using NMI components for students to access our course management system and to distribute software to our campus."