The Internet2 Commons: Supporting Distributed Engineering Collaboration

In 2001, the National Science Foundation began a new research initiative aimed at scaling up the national capability for conducting cutting-edge earthquake engineering research needed to reduce vulnerability of built environments to seismic events. This initiative, a 15-year program known as the George E. Brown, Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES, nees.org), promises to transform the practice of earthquake engineering by enabling the combination of physical experimentation, computational simulation, data curation, theory formulation and validation, high-performance computing, and education within a single framework.

The emerging national cyber infrastructure is also being leveraged to develop a national collaboratory, called NEESgrid (neesgrid.org, NSF Award CMS-0117853), that will link together 15 NEES equipment sites and allow them to act as a single virtual earthquake engineering laboratory representing a capital investment of more than $80 million. When this system comes online in late 2004, it will represent a significant use of Internet2’s Abilene network, which will provide backbone connectivity for the video, data, and control information that will be sent between sites. The development of the system, however, has also benefited from the network and application resources that Internet2 makes available to its 205 member institutions.

Late in 2001, the NEES community faced a communication crisis. The interdisciplinary challenges of constructing the NEES collaboratory, combined with tight production deadlines, dictated a schedule of regular meetings involving participants from each of the diverse NEES elements (i.e., the equipment site awardees, the four sites within the system integration award, the NEES Consortium Development awardees, and NSF program managers). Regular face-to-face meetings were impractical for a group this large and distributed, and phone conferencing was not ideal because of cost, lack of familiarity among the participants, and diversity in experience and training (e.g., computer scientists vs. structural engineers).

Fortunately, key individuals within the NEES community had experience with point-to-point IP-based video conferencing and were further encouraged by large-scale multipoint experiments like the H.323-based Megaconference (www.megaconference.org). As a result of this experience, the NEES community agreed to adopt H.323 video conferencing to support their distributed interaction because of its ease of use, quick deployment time, and its ability to work without major changes in network configurations at the participating institutions. Internet2 provided the multipoint infrastructure for this experiment through the Commons (commons.Internet2.edu), a set of collaborative services offered to Internet2 members.

The first NEES video conference hosted via the Commons, called the “NEES Equipment Site Technical Forum” (ES-TF), was held on January 24, 2002. Since this initial meeting, the ES-TF has grown to become an important part of the NEES community, with an average of two to four conferences per month. Topics have included data models, telepresence systems, control protocols, experimental setups and new testing methods. Service offerings have expanded considerably beyond the initial data and video conferencing and now include multipoint video conferencing provided by the Internet2 Commons, Placeware Web conferencing, video streaming and archiving through a Starbak Torrent VCG, and asynchronous e-mail discussion and data sharing using the University of Michigan WorkTools environment and custom environments built on the CompreHensive collaborativE Framework (CHEF: www.chefproject.org). These tools and services constitute the collaboration infrastructure that has allowed for the frequent and open discussion of many topics in the NEES collaboration and has produced increased familiarity and understanding among the diverse members of the NEES community.

Throughout the birth and growth of the ES-TF, Internet2 has played a vital enabling role. At a very basic level, Internet2’s Abilene network has provided the high bandwidth and low latency connections between sites that made this kind of distributed real-time meeting possible at a low cost to the end users. The Internet2 Commons has similarly played an important role in allowing the community to experiment with collaborative technologies before making major investments and providing capabilities that individual universities are unable to provide. Internet2 promises to play a large role in enabling scientific discovery and improving engineering once NEES comes online, but has played an equally important role by enabling the advanced collaborative services to support the construction of NEES.

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