As the quantity and complexity of scientific data grows, so does the importance of effective visualizations. In response, visualization centers have sprung up around the globe.
Meanwhile, new fields have joined the e-science club, and with them comes expectations of more user-friendly software with attractive graphical user interfaces. The technologies developed for their needs are in turn benefiting more traditional users of scientific computing, such as the field of astrophysics.
VisIVO, a cross-platform solution for visualizing astrophysics simulations on European computing infrastructures, is one example of this phenomenon. Running since 2005, VisIVO is a collaborative project between scientists working in Italy and the UK. It aims to empower astrophysicists through a graphical interface that runs natively on Windows, UNIX, and Mac OS X, with a server version that has brought VisIVO to data centers, grids, and the web.
"Being able to perform large scale simulations of the cosmos has traditionally been reliant on the availability of high-performance computers, due to problems of time lag when using a grid," said Alessandro Costa, a technologist at the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF) Catania Astrophysical Observatory's computing center, and a developer with the VisIVO project.
In grid computing, the task a user submits is divided into parts and sent across a network, such as the internet, to computers distributed across a large region, or even the whole world, for calculation. The distance between those computers, combined with the bandwidth and speed of the network, creates the time lag to which Costa refers, since it takes longer for information to travel greater distances.
"Infiniband networks such as the one we use from EGI-Inspire cut this lag down to five microseconds. This is ten times faster than consumer-grade networks. It makes grid comparable with high-performance computers for these simulations," Costa said.
The ability to run VisIVO on a grid is good news for scientists, since it is generally much easier to acquire grid compute time than it is to get time on a high-performance computing system.
VisIVO has also been able to take advantage of recent technological innovation that makes doing visual work on distributed computing possible. Specifically, an application-specific gateway for the European distributed computing infrastructure project SCI-BUS, which provides seamless access to major European distributed computing infrastructure, whether that's grids, high-performance computers, or clouds.
VisIVO is particularly noteworthy for an extremely user-friendly design.
"Users don't have to worry about complicated commands. The graphical manipulation they perform on their data is converted in real-time and on-screen into the textual input that runs on the grid. The system is the ultimate tutor," Costa said.
Another major development since VisIVO's inception is its expansion from a single-platform application running on Windows to being multi-platform. The web-based version, VisIVOweb, brings the application to mobile platforms, but there are also native apps for iPads and iPhones.
"We actually have a particular expertise in working with Apple hardware, and the market-share [compared to Android] in Europe is large," Costa said. However, "…our design is independent of the platform, so we're in the process of porting this to Android for mobile users."
The team is also porting the software to a desktop grid environment with the European project EDGI.
The developers of VisIVO are not content to limit their work to the field of astrophysics. Instead they are bringing their easy-to-use graphical interface to other areas of science. One such project has implications for homeland security.
"We can inspect containers in a port or airport for fissile material such as uranium by detecting differences in muon tracks from cosmic rays, which can be affected by the material," Costa said.
The early stages of this project also hinted at its large scope: "At the very beginning, our co-worker was from the biomedical field," Costa said. "Our current application has been in the field astrophysics, but we're always looking for new areas of science that could benefit from our technology."
The VisIVO collaboration is also running an iOS app-based space simulation competition for schoolchildren and the wider public in collaboration with the Intech planetarium, Winchester, UK. The app is free to download and rulescan be found through this link. The closing date for entries is 30 June 2012.