Project Background

Over the past 30 months an interdisciplinary team of scientists and developers has created unique web-based software that connects researchers with experiments at advanced science facilities anywhere in the world. The project, called “Science Studio” has involved software specialists and physical scientists from Western, the Canadian Light Source and IBM Canada. The software is highly intuitive and works with ordinary desktop web browsers. Science Studio has been funded by CANARIE, Canada’s national academic computer network, because scientists will not only conduct remote experiments using such networks, but also will transport and process the experimental data produced using the advanced streaming software that is being developed as part of the project. These developments greatly enhance the efficiency of major science resources, such as synchrotrons, because users are no longer required to be physically present, the work schedule can be more flexible and the data acquired can be interpreted during the experiment itself. No comparable software is available anywhere.

At present, Science Studio has two fully developed experimental sites that are accessible from the Science Studio website (http://www.sciencestudio.net). The first is the VESPERS beamline at the Canadian Light Source. VESPERS provides users with microscopic compositional and structural information on samples ranging from minerals to metals to biological tissues. A second site is the Nanofabrication Laboratory at Western where imaging and compositional information on comparable samples is provided to remote users. It is not uncommon that users might wish to access both sites in the course of a research project. All records and results from experiments at each site are visible in the user’s project pages in Science Studio. Many users on the same project team can access an experiment simultaneously and can share the data. As well, communication and social networking tools are provided to enhance communication between research team members and with newly-formed interest groups. The Science Studio Project has new applications underway. The National Synchrotron of Brazil in Campinas has adopted Science Studio software for control of new beamlines and electron microscopes and will be a part of the network joining Science Studio sites. The Advanced Light Source (ALS) synchrotron facility at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory has been joined to Western by a fibre optic “lightpath” that will allow newly developed Science Studio stream computing software to be tested with a high speed detector.

This is unique software. Previous efforts to control remote experiments have relied upon the use of dedicated computer interfaces that would be programmed to move a specific motor or read a detector. For this reason, the development of each application was so labour intensive and so limited to a user at a particular specialized “portal” that there are, at present, no known examples where extended remote access to a scientific facility is available. Security of the experimental facility from internet attacks and unauthorized access to data have been major issues. With Science Studio software only a normal web browser is needed to bring the scientist in contact with all the experimental controls and output screens. At the device end, Science Studio talks to, but does not supplant the original software. Science Studio uses a range of newly developed internet web services that provide a stable platform available to large numbers of users and adaptable to devices with different levels of security and accessible software. This Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) software was designed by IBM Canada, but is now open source, thus making it possible to build a network around Science Studio using developers in many locales.

For the past year the Science Studio application on the VESPERS beamline has been continually tested. A paper on some outcomes of Science Studio testing was published recently in the Journal of Analytical Spectroscopy [1]. As well, the system has been upgraded and demonstrated to interested users across Canada as well as to representatives from international synchrotrons. This has led to the two new applications mentioned above. More recently, this September, an experiment was conducted remotely a user group in Adelaide Australia and was watched by the management of the Australian synchrotron in Melbourne. Australia has a well-developed community interested in remote access to synchrotron experimental facilities; comments by the Victoria e Research Strategic Initiative (VeRSI) strongly supported the use of Science Studio software in their upcoming remote applications.

Why is this so important? In recent years, huge investments have been made around the world in advanced scientific resources such as synchrotrons and neutron sources. However, very little has yet been invested to make such facilities available to users through internet access; instead user teams must travel long distances to the facility for fixed blocs of time just as they have always done. Here in Canada, because of travel costs, most users of the Canadian Light Source come from Western Canada. And even as data is produced by such facilities in ever increasing density, the development of robust computing facilities and user-friendly software has not kept pace; instead users are directed to learn software routines sometimes, of unknown lineage that were developed years ago. In exhorting governments for funding, some of major facilities have made much of the industrial applications that will appear. Yet few industries will abide the long delays involved in data processing and interpretation that accompanies experiments at many such facilities. At a time when the Internet is transforming our culture in many directions, there is little change in the way science resources are accessed from that provided fifty years ago. So, Science Studio software and its network is being designed to overcome the delays and confusion that often accompanies any, but the most seasoned of users at a major scientific facility.