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Feature - Big science facilities meet the cloud

Feature - Big science facilities meet the cloud

Dylan Maxwell explains the Science Studio system to a bystander at Summit 2009 in Banff, Alberta. Photo by Miriam Boon.

Lab notebooks are so passé. In the brave new world of cloud computing, the entire experimental process will take place in your web browser.

And if a team of Canadian researchers at the University of Western Ontario and the Canadian Light Source in Saskatchewan has anything to say about it, researchers around the world will be using a web platform called Science Studio.

"One of the aims of Science Studio is to be able to access big science facilities such as the Canadian Light Source," said Marina Fuller, a chemistry researcher with the project. "It's a complete experiment management system."

The test case for Science Studio is the VESPERS beamline at the Canadian Light Source synchrotron. When Science Studio is complete in 2011, researchers will be able to use the platform to apply for beamtime, remotely control the experiment and receive live data analyses.

Although the ability to remotely control synchrotron experiments is rare, remote access to the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource has been up and running for over five years.

"We're still the only crystallography synchrotron in the world that is actually doing this routinely," said Clyde Smith, a staff scientist at SSRL. But, "there are lots of others that are developing robotic systems."

Not all large fixed equipment has the robotics necessary to operate remotely. Others have the physical equipment, but use proprietary software that Science Studio will not be able to connect with.

"One of the things we're doing this fall is we're looking at how to integrate a scanning electron microscope," said Michael Bauer, principal investigator for the Science Studio project. "So this is a little bit different because given the current electron microscope, it can't be controlled remotely."

Even in the absence of the ability to remote control the experiment, Science Studio has features which could be useful. Science Studio will include collaboration tools that aim to streamline the entire experimental workflow, from the creation and submission of proposals for time on specialized equipment, to data analysis and paper creation.

At Summit 2009 in Banff, Alberta, Dylan Maxwell gives a live demo of Science Studio's connection to the VESPER beamline at the Canadian Light Source. Photo by Miriam Boon.

"The scientist-user actually organizes everything they're doing with respect to experiments under a project umbrella, including the data that they collect from large facilities such as the Canadian Light Source," said Fuller.

Within a single project, there could be multiple sets of related data from any number of experimental facilities. The system organizes the experimental data and metadata online so that other users who are members of the project team can view the data as it is collected. "This way," said Fuller, "the black lab notebook can actually be accessed by all team members."

Although Science Studio has funding through March 2011, the next stage of the project, ANISE, has already received funding. "ANISE is the extension of Science Studio," said Bauer, "and it's the attempt to extend it into something much more general."

Under ANISE, the Science Studio team will aim to partner with a variety of synchrotrons worldwide. Although at this time there are no official partnerships, several researchers at U.S. synchrotrons have expressed interest in the project, according to Bauer.

Facilities that choose not to partner directly with ANISE will still be able to take advantage of the Science Studio platform. "The intent is that this will eventually all be open source," said Bauer. "Clearly there needs to be some level of customization, because the controls are going to vary from instrument to instrument. But the upper layers will be accessible to everybody."

-Miriam Boon, iSGTW

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