Research Highlight: The Network Behind the Network


A national consortium of oceanographic institutions has chosen UC San Diego to receive a $29 million award to create a computer cyberinfrastructure that will enable a vast network of ocean-observing instruments to communicate with scientists, students, and members of the general public.

Researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego will lead the project funded by Joint Oceanographic Institutions (JOI), Inc. over six years. Total funding from the Cyberinfrastructure (CI) award might reach more than $42 million over the course of the planned 11-year endeavor. The award will fund development of a digital infrastructure that will let ocean observatories collect, process, and transmit data continuously. That computer network will complement other planned networks of buoys and robots. These and other instruments, deployed throughout the world’s oceans, will let researchers conduct global-scale science projects.

 “Routine, long-term measurement of episodic oceanic processes is crucial to continued growth in our understanding and predictive modeling of complex natural phenomena,” said John Orcutt, principal investigator on the Cyberinfrastructre project and a professor of geophysics at Scripps.

Oceanographers have historically struggled with only being able to observe ocean dynamics in a very limited fashion through periodic research cruises on ships, small fleets of deployed instruments and computer simulations. To capture physical phenomena over large areas continuously over periods from days to decades has only recently been a possibility for scientists.

UCSD’s California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) will manage the project and, together with Scripps and the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC), will build the cyberinfrastructure.

The cyberinfrastructure will transport real-time data streams at up to one gigabit per second from a variety of ocean-dwelling sensors and other instruments. The data will be available in real time via dedicated, high-speed Internet links to any computer user. Two-way connectivity will also allow scientists to operate robots on the ocean floor interactively—from their campus laboratories. Many of these functions will be undertaken automatically without human intervention.

The Cyberinfrastructure award is the first of three planned by JOI for the National Science Foundation’s Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI). The “virtual” infrastructure will parallel and underpin the physical infrastructure of the other two projects: 

  • A regional, cabled network, which will “wire” a single region in the Northeast Pacific Ocean with a high-speed optical and power grid.
  • Coastal and global networks. A global network of moored buoys linked to shore via satellite will support planetary-scale science projects, while existing coastal observing facilities will be expanded to help scientists study the effects of intense, complex forces on coastal environments.

The bulk of the cyberinfrastructure work will be done by computer scientists and engineers at UC San Diego. Based at Calit2 and Scripps, the project will draw on expertise in grid computing and large-scale distributed networks at both divisions as well as the university’s San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) and National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research (NCMIR).

 “This project will seek to leverage U.S. leadership into similar initiatives under way around the world,” said Scripps Director Tony Haymet.

— Robert Monroe

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