Research from the coffee shop

May 09, 2011   |  Ian Foster

As I pondered what tone to setting for this blog, I tried to put myself in the shoes of the professional researcher. While I’ve lived that life, the everyday life of the dedicated, full-time researcher today has changed (and is changing) beyond what I’ve experienced, and I feel for you all out there who are challenged day-in, day-out with getting your work done in a rapidly changing world. For many researchers today, it’s all about wrangling massive data using faster and faster computers, while also struggling to keep ahead of the crowd by forging and sustaining ever-more-ambitious interdisciplinary collaborations. Those of you who have access to the right tools for these tasks are in the minority: Sure, big science projects have capabilities for getting and working with the data they need. But the average hardworking independent researcher or smaller lab does not. So the challenge (and opportunity) is to make these capabilities accessible not just to a few “big science” projects but to every researcher everywhere.

When I was a undergraduate student in New Zealand, which to me doesn’t seem that long ago, I couldn’t just walk down the street to the closest WiFi-enabled business and access the tools I needed for my work – I had to rely on facilities like a Burroughs mainframe, which meant wait times and difficulties in just getting myself to the right location. I remember 4am bike rides to the computer center to get unfettered access to a PDP-11 minicomputer. It boggles my mind that entrepreneurs today can actually run a successful business from a coffee shop, outsourcing many of the complexities of operating that business to third parties. My dream is that one day soon, we’ll see researchers running ambitious research programs from that same coffee shop. The answer is not to give them more software because they don’t have the time and expertise to install and operate it. We need to take the IT required for research and deliver that IT in a convenient and cost-effective manner, just as Google delivers email and delivers customer relationship management. In many cases, commercial clouds may offer a cost-effective source of computing and storage. But we still need to provide what we might call the “business logic” or “workflow” of science.

With Globus Online, we’ve started delivering these capabilities, focusing first on the task of moving large quantities of data from one place to another. Using Web browser, command line, or REST interfaces, you can ask Globus Online to move or synchronize files and directories—much as you might ask Amazon to ship a book. Globus Online then handles the numerous tedious details of making that transfer happen reliably and efficiently. So a researcher at a coffee shop (or anyplace with an Internet connection) can sit down and move the data he needs, where he needs it, without having to worry about managing the transfer. Fire and forget – this is what the modern researcher needs, and is what the Globus Online team is dedicated to delivering. For some of you, data movement is a big problem and so you’ll find Globus Online immediately exciting. For many of you, data movement is a bit of a yawn. So I’d like to emphasize that we’re not stopping there. We’re building the Globus Online roadmap by looking carefully at what researchers find most tedious in science. For example, almost every researcher we work with has a need to share data and results with collaborators, so an obvious next step is to give those researchers a straightforward way to do that. Sharing today often means copying thousands of files on a hard disk and shipping it via FedEx. Making this type of exchange more direct, intuitive and manageable will be of value to a lot of people. I know it is to me, in my current research.

In closing, I challenge all readers to challenge the team at Globus Online to make the Coffee Shop Research Dream possible. Tell us what you think about the vision, and what we need to do to get there. Let us know about specific challenges you face, even if you think there is nothing that can be done about them. Chances are that there will be, someday, even if none of us can imagine it yet. Keep in mind none of us knew 20 years ago that we’d be able to order music, do our taxes, book travel, etc., from a wireless connection anywhere on the planet. Let’s make it happen again, with a focus on the tools researchers need to make the planet a better place.