NASA readies modeling and simulation for launch in browsers

Project would create software service to increase access to climate modeling

NASA looks into space from the Earth, but it also looks at Earth from space. The agency builds and operates Earth-observing satellites and conducts research using complex climate modeling and simulation programs.

The agency is looking for ways to speed development and expand access to those tools.

“It’s expensive for us to port our models to different platforms,” said Mike Seablom, head of the Software Integration and Visualization Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “The code is complex, and it doesn’t transport without a lot of work. It’s an expensive job.”


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To simplify the job, NASA has awarded a $600,000, two-year contract to Parabon Computation to develop Web-based collaboration with modeling and simulation applications.

“We’re working with Parabon to help bring our climate models into the hands of more researchers through the software-as-a-service paradigm,” Seablom said.

The idea is to host the models as a Web service so users can access and run them through a Web browser and direct the output to the appropriate location without needing a local copy of the application.

“The fact that this solution is accessible from the browser means anyone anywhere will be able to help contribute to our understanding of Earth system science,” Seablom said. “The process of porting and testing the model is done away with. That should reduce the cost of deployment and speed the time to market.”

Through a browser, users will be able to access a single instance of the modeling software, maintained on a server in the enterprise, rather than working on a local copy. When completed, the software will expand the ability for people to collaborate from remote locations, giving many more researchers and students access to the software.

However, making interaction possible through a browser is a challenge, said Steven Armentrout, Parabon president and chief executive officer.

“Modeling and simulation doesn’t lend itself to being browser-based,” Armentrout said. “These are typically code bases that are living products, constantly changing. There are large volumes of output being generated,” which can create problems with latency. “The best way to handle latency is to avoid it in the first place” and keep the processing and postprocessing at the edge for as long as possible to reduce transmission times.

Parabon will be building the system on its flagship product, the Frontier Grid Platform, which aggregates computing resources and distributes computing jobs to make use of idle capacity in grid computing. The online tools will include a browser-based source code editor, online collaboration utilities and a virtualized build and runtime environment.

Despite the challenges, Armentrout said Parabon will unveil a working product in stages during the next two years.

The job is more than an evolutionary step, he said, but “I don’t think it’s a great leap, because we do have Frontier to build on,” which provides a service layer for grid computing.

The work is part of NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program. NASA solicited proposals for enabling remote access to a common code base, with proper access controls, and Parabon received a grant for a feasibility study in January 2009. The company proposed an architecture for the program in July and received the go-ahead last month to build the system in phases.

“We solved a lot of the problems in Phase 1,” Armentrout said. “Now it’s execution.”

Parabon has considerable experience in managing access to distributed computing resources. The company buys excess or idle computing capacity on enterprise systems. Frontier manages those resources with an agent on the client machines and a server that allocates jobs as resources become available.

“The supply side of the equation is very favorable to us,” Armentrout said. Many computers typically use only 10 to 20 percent of their capacity and have plenty of remaining capacity to run other jobs in the background. “There is such a glut of capacity out there that we don’t have to pay very much.”

Tasks run in a virtual machine that cannot write to the host’s hard drive, access its memory or talk to other machines on the network, minimizing security concerns for the owners of the resources that Parabon's platform taps.

“We were using virtualization before it was a word,” Armentrout said. Now that the concept is becoming familiar, “it’s not nearly the tough sell it used to be. That part of the conversation is a lot shorter.”

Frontier supports all major operating systems, including the various releases of Windows and Unix. The grid can be external, or Frontier can operate behind a user’s firewall so that it accesses only capacity inside that enterprise.

Although Parabon will apply its grid computing experience in making modeling available as a service through a browser, the system will not be using grid computing, at least in its initial release, Seablom said.

“It would be nice to be able to scrounge the idle processing power,” he said, but it is difficult for the modeling and simulation applications to use those services. “To date, there is no cloud paradigm to solve that problem,” but Parabon is working on a way to set up high-performance clusters in the cloud that could be used in the future.

The system will not be a one-off for NASA. One of the requirements for the project proposal was a commercialization program.

“We think there is a large market for it,” Armentrout said. His company has talked with the Army and other industries to gauge interest. “There is a general movement to do more on the grid and in the browser.”

Within NASA, making climate modeling available as a service is expected to significantly increase the number of collaborators using and contributing to the simulations.

“How big is the potential user base?” Seablom asked. “We don’t know. It could be bigger than it is, especially at universities. A lot more students could be using it than are using it today."

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