The Internet2 Commons: Supporting Distributed Engineering Collaboration
- By Erik C. Hofer , Thomas A. Finholt, Jerome F. Hajjar, Andrei M. Reinhorn
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.