Colorado lab tries visual area networking

Colorado lab tries visual area networking

A federally funded laboratory in Boulder, Colo., is test-driving a visual area networking system that helps scientists view the results of data-intensive projects.

Visual area networking, a concept developed by SGI, lets collaborators move compressed images of large data sets'rather than the large data sets themselves around a network [see story at www.gcn.com/22_4/tech-report/21205-1.html].

Don Middleton, head of the Visualization and Emerging Technologies Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said his group had had a smaller visualization lab for several years. In late 2000, the researchers decided to build a lab that could accommodate larger groups.

NCAR officials 'also wanted to raise the bar for collaborative scientific visualization,' Middleton said.

The researchers kept the SGI Onyx 2 and other SGI gear from the old visualization room. Last fall they added a new SGI Onyx 3800 with 10 processors and four graphics pipes, Middleton said. It's connected to a 5T storage area network.

For viewing images locally, the visualization lab has a 24- by 8-foot screen illuminated by four Barco Sim-6 projectors from Barco Simulation Projects of Kuurne, Belgium, and Xenia, Ohio, Middleton said. The projectors work in passive stereo, meaning that projected images can be viewed through eyeglasses with polarized lenses.

Researchers can choose to view data sets on the lab's big screen or use the visual area network to send graphics generated by NCAR's supercomputers to desktop workstations.

'Moving 1T of data around is difficult to do, but moving pictures over the wire is pretty doable, even at 15 to 30 frames per second,' Middleton said. The 30-fps speed is roughly equal to 90 megabytes/sec.

The OpenGL VizServer software compresses frames for transmission over an Ethernet connection and uncompresses them at the other end. The ever-growing processing power of desktop systems has made this possible, Middleton said.

'It's a very practical approach for very large data,' Middleton said. 'Move the pictures; don't move the data.'

The NCAR visualization lab also is a node on the Access Grid, a remote-conferencing project using technology developed by the Energy Department's Argonne National Laboratory. The Access Grid handles only 2-D images now, but NCAR and Argonne researchers are experimenting with ways to work interactively with 3-D data sets, Middleton said.

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