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OPTICAL RACE

Technology development at TRECC is helping harness the speed of "generation after next" optical middleware to help researchers collaborate in real time.

Lambda Vision

An 11x5 LambdaVision 100 Megapixel display wall. The wall currently awaits illumination from soon-to-be-installed fiber optic patch panels that will connect it to other OptIPuter nodes across the country. 

It's an accepted fact that, no matter how rapid the pace of technology development, the needs of industry and research and development will always be greater. Computational infrastructure such as the TeraGrid, in which middleware on large, fast machines based at supercomputing centers and universities across the nation is networked via fast Ethernet connections, already handles 40 gigabits of data per second.

But as Grid infrastructure grows, so do data needs -- which are now in the range of terabytes. And researchers collaborating over large distances are more interested than ever in the possibility of real-time decision making, which would allow geographically remote groups to view and work simultaneously with the same large datasets or large-scale, high-resolution visualizations. Research communities such as environmental engineers and oceanographers -- the latter heavily involved in Navy-supported research -- have specific needs for technology that will make responding to environmental hazards and monitoring water supplies and other natural resources more efficient.

The OptIPuter is a computing paradigm in which dynamically controllable optical networks become the system bus that connects cluster computers as if they were giant peripherals in a planetary-scale compute. (The IP in OptIPuter refers to the fact that it uses Internet Protocol as the standard for data transmission.) Supported by National Science Foundation's Information Technology Research (ITR) program, the OptIPuter aims to deliver the middleware and end-user software that will allow geoscientists and bioscientists to work with enormous data-sets in real-time over thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable that are part of an emerging Lambda Grid that connects sites like TRECC, NCSA, UCSD, and EVL at UIC.

Varrier Display

The Varrier autostereo display, which projects three-dimensional images into a room without requiring observers to wear special 3D glasses

"Generation after next" is what Tom Prudhomme calls the OptIPuter. Prudhomme's involvement has been instrumental to TRECC's participation in the development of the OptIPuter, participation which Prudhomme sees as crucial. "TRECC's research mission is to look at next-generation, or generation-after-that research ideas, where we can test them quickly, try them out, and demonstrate results with real value," says Prudhomme. At this point, the OptIPuter is more reality than vision, and collaborators are beginning to explore how to use its architecture to its fullest potential in a collaborative, real-time, on-demand setting. This is where TRECC comes in.

EVL is now partnering with TRECC to deploy new visualization and other user interface technologies at the TRECC facility in West Chicago. It's a collaboration that's been going on for three years now and that began with the installation of the Continuum at TRECC in 2001. "The Continuum is really the prototype for OptIPuter collaboration environments," says Jason Leigh of EVL, who currently leads the project to make TRECC an OptIPuter node. "In other words, they should be extremely display-rich environments, with the ability to wallpaper a high-definition video stream and high-resolution visualization content, and to be able to work collaboratively with this data over distance."

At present, TRECC's Continuum includes a number of large, high-resolution display walls, but after studying how users interacted with them, Leigh and his group began to think about the next generation of visual display. "We gave the users the ability to 'transition' -- to move their cursors seamlessly across all the screens as if they were one big screen. What we found was that they automatically assumed that all the screens were actually really one screen," explains Leigh. "What we realized was that in building our OptIPuter visualization software for driving infinitely-tiled display screens was that we were going to have to take this into account."

The result of this experiment was the Scalable Adaptive Graphics Environment (SAGE) -- the software that will drive the "next generation" of the Continuum. Imagine an entire room covered in thin displays (which Leigh predicts will someday be cheap enough to be used as wallpaper) and driven by an extremely high-speed network. "You're going to stop treating information on the wall like you would on your regular desktop computer," says Leigh. "The traditional notion of using a keyboard and a mouse doesn't quite work very well, because the cursor is so small that it will disappear into the wall." Instead, Leigh suggests, people will walk up to the wall and interact with it as if it were simply an office wall -- but one as useful and important as a computer desktop. "Think about how you organize your office-some people will put up posters, some people will tape up bits of paper with notes on them, people will have little corkboards where they stick bits of notes and posters and images, potentially. This is exactly the same thing, except that we're going to make it digital and hence provide greater access to dynamic information. People already take advantage of wall space for putting up information. We're just making it digital so that it's even more flexible." Leigh further envisions that as users move from one room to another, all the information in that room will be able to move with them, seamlessly.

tiled display at BIRN

A mouse cerebellum magnified several thousand times on a tiled display in the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research at the University of California, San Diego, an OptIPuter partner. It is anticipated that large-scale visualizations like these will become less unwieldy and more "user-friendly" as more OptIPuter nodes are activated around the network.

Since the completion of the first Continuum prototype, when most of the existing hardware was put in place, collaborators on the OptIPuter project have been continually upgrading and improving the space. This year's plan is to add a new 3D autostereo display called the Varrier, which Leigh describes as "a really, really big 3D baseball card." The Varrier generates separate views for the left and right eyes which are visible through interlaced, black-line screens, so that observers are able to see the two different images simultaneously as one three-dimensional image, thus making the usual cardboard glasses with colored filters unnecessary. "The black lines literally block out the image that is not intended for each of the eyes, but it's interlaced in such a fine manner that you don't notice that there are big black lines-you just see the images in between," explains Leigh.

Both the Varrier and the newly-installed display technology, such as the LambdaVision 100 Megapixel display wall (right), are currently built from heavy-weight OptIPuter computer clusters since they serve both as rendering and display nodes. Ultimately the displays will have small computers imbedded in them and will be "fed" directly with fiber optic cables.. "If you can routinely buy displays with networking already integrated into them and simply tile it, you don't need a whole system administration team to manage a large cluster of computers," he says. If centers such as NCSA, SDSC and Argonne can function as storage, computing and rendering services for the visualizations, all that researchers would need to do is install the displays. "It's almost like you're buying a big-screen TV for home-you don't have to buy the TV station with it, you're just streaming the content. The advantage now is that you can tell the TV station to create and stream whatever content you want, to you. Researchers like the fact that it's as easy to use as a TV -- that's the best way to get them to use it."

Leigh and Prudhomme anticipate that displays similar to those at TRECC will also be put in place at ACCESS this year, making the collaboratory accessible to decision makers in the Washington, DC, area. In addition, there are plans to join with an independent NCSA effort to make Cobalt, NCSA's new SGI Altix system, itself an OptIPuter node. "The OptIPuter network currently doesn't have super-powerful machines," says Prudhomme. "The Altix system will be a significant addition." Prudhomme envisions a network of nodes that makes the OptIPuter accessible to a broad range of users, including Navy and environmental researchers at SDSC, UIUC academics at NCSA, federal users at ACCESS, and Chicago users at EVL. "I think that would be pretty good for one year, to throw together five major nodes, where people can work together in a group-to-group collaborative environment, supported by advanced computing, data management services, and interactive visualization capabilities," he says. "TRECC was always intended to try new things -- thoughtful, useful, well-conceived, but high-risk ideas, so we were already working on this kind of technology. Now we're just taking it to the next level."