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Advancing excellent science at the EGI Community Forum

The EGI Community Forum was held at the University of Helsinki, Finland.

Last week, iSGTW attended the European Grid Infrastructure (EGI) Community Forum 2014 in Helskinki, Finland. The event focused on the EGI contribution to advancing excellent science in the European Research Area through the use of innovative services for data and computing.

EGI at the heart of the digital revolution in science

Thierry van der Pyl, director of 'excellence in science' in the European Commission Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content, and Technology (DG CONNECT), spoke during the opening plenary session of the event. "Today, science itself is being transformed: All disciplines are now becoming computational, with more and more data to be processed," says Van der Pyl. "E-infrastructures are part of the digital revolution transforming our society, re-inventing industry, and changing science." During his talk, Van der Pyl also praised EGI for the progress it has made over the last decade: "I would like to congratulate the EGI community for its achievements in building a truly European infrastructure - I think this is a remarkable result."

A cloud service tailored for European researchers

The EGI Federated Cloud was launched during last week's event. It has been built to support development and innovation within the European Research Area and was designed in collaboration with a wide range of research communities from across the continent.

"I am delighted to be able to announce that after so much hard work from everyone involved we now have a research orientated cloud platform based on open standards that is ready to support every researcher in Europe," says David Wallom, chair of the Federated Clouds Task Force. "This is an important milestone for all areas of research in Europe."

The EGI Federated Cloud is already supporting new researchers, who were up and running within 24 hours of the launch. Tom Whyntie, a researcher working on the CERN@school program decided that it could be just the solution he was looking for. "I saw David's talk at the Community Forum and it sounded great," says Whyntie. "So I looked at the details on the EGI wiki and just followed them, it was exactly what I needed."

CERN@school was conceived at the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys in Canterbury, UK, and is funded through the UK Science and Technologies Facilities Council and the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. It brings technology from CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland, into the classroom to aid with the teaching of particle physics. "We want to engage students with real science, and nowadays that also means computing" explains Whyntie.

In less than 24 hours he was able to join the Federated Cloud's virtual organization, choose a virtual image, and get it instantiated on the Federated Cloud. "I was able to get exactly what I wanted running in the Federated Cloud," says Whyntie.

Read more about the launch of the EGI Federated Cloud on the GridCast blog, here.

For the first time, the Community Forum featured a range of 'lightning talks', which showcased some of the research enabled through EGI's computational resources. These highlighted the increasingly diverse nature of the research communities supported by EGI: One talk focused on solving the Newtonian three-body problem, while others focused on air-quality forecasting and modeling the distribution of butterfly species.

Analyzing data from above and below the Earth's surface

The event, however, wasn't just centered on research enabled directly by EGI, or even grid computing: a wide-range of e-infrastructures and computing-related fields were discussed. Martin Ditter, head of the Earth Observation Ground Segment Management Office at the European Space Agency (ESA), spoke at the event about the need to make the most of the ever-increasing amounts of data generated by Earth-observation satellites. Ditter suggested that policies promoting free and open data mean that a new paradigm - providing 'information as a service' and built around a federation of partners such as Helix Nebula - is now emerging. This, he says, could support the emergence of a new ecosystem for scientific innovation and new business alike. "Space has brought a lot of benefits to our society through utilities," explains Ditter. "But I am convinced that the European Earth-observation community realizes that the benefits of the data need to be reaped by many more actors than is the case today."

Ian Fisk of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), near Chicago, Illinois, US, also gave a keynote speech at the event. This focused on the evolution of the computing models used to analyze the data coming from the experiments on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland. Fisk highlighted the success of the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid and explained how this is developing to allow more flexibility in its strict tier-based model. "We are reducing how strictly we define the functionality in each tier," he says. "Lines and capabilities are blurring together."

Data farms

Of course, high-energy physics is one of the research fields that has typically been most closely associated with EGI, big data, and complex scientific computing. Agriculture, by contrast, has not often been associated with any of these things. However, this is now changing in a dramatic way, according to a keynote speech given by Chris Rawlings of Rothamsted Research in the UK. "Biology is a big-data discipline, and ecology is becoming one," says Rawlings. "Next-generation genome sequencing and other 'omics technologies are creating a data deluge," he explains, adding that the cutting-edge image-based technologies now used for studying plants in greenhouses and fields (including sophisticated, automated camera rigs and drones) are leading to a new "data tsunami" in agricultural research.

During his speech, Rawlings highlighted research predicting that global demand for food is set to increase by half by 2030 and double by 2050. This, he argues, is why it is vital that sophisticated computing and data technologies are put to use to help researchers better understand agricultural ecosystems. Through this improved understanding, Rawlings hopes that researchers will be able to find ways to maximize the productivity of agricultural land, so as to provide food for the planet's growing population without crippling natural ecosystems. "We're not just collecting data for its own sake, we're collecting data to build models and better understand how agricultural systems function," says Rawlings. "We want to do more in silico research… but this is challenging because it requires people with completely different skills."

iSGTW interviews

Pirjo-Leena Forsström, director of information infrastructure services at Finland's IT Center for Science (CSC), gave a keynote speech at last week's event about the preservation of scientific information in the open-science era. Read more about this in our exclusive interview with her. Also, read our in-depth interview with EGI.eu's new director Yannick Legré.

EGI, inspired

On the final day of the event, Tiziana Ferrari, technical director at EGI.eu and project director for EGI-InSPIRE, took the opportunity to look to the future. "It's very pleasing to see lots of user communities working together," she says. "The vision of EGI is to be more multidisciplinary." Ferrari outlined EGI's ambitious goals for 2020, saying that by the end of this decade European researchers will be able to:

  • Access a single point of contact for obtaining the necessary ICT services (integrated and interoperable), the related capacity, and support from various e-infrastructures (including commercial providers).
  • Connect to expert consultancy to understand the services they need or to support developing new solutions to perform their digital research.
  • Freely discover, share, use, and re-use various research outputs.

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