'Not at the End of the Rainbow Yet': Q&A with Tom DeFanti, Co-Chair, iGrid 2005

September 7, 2005

By Doug Ramsey, UCSD, dramsey @

SAN DIEGO, California -- From September 26-30, Calit2 will host iGrid 2005, an international workshop and symposium in San Diego to showcase the latest high-bandwidth grid and networking technologies and applications. Tom DeFanti co-directs the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is a senior research scientist with the UCSD division of Calit2. DeFanti co- chairs iGrid 2005, and in an interview, joked that "sometimes I think of it as the visualization, networking, and grid computing equivalent of a Grateful Dead concert."

Q. How so?

A. This is not a typical conference. Its really a workshop, and almost everyone who attends is contributing in one way or another, and more than half are contributing content. We see iGrid as a very intense workshop to develop new ideas and capabilities, and people risk a lot in terms of trying things that have never been done before. Many of the demonstrations will also be shown at Supercomputing 2005 in November, and when they arrive at SC, they want to be sure everything works. So at iGrid, it is okay if something doesnt work, because we know we have six weeks more to make it work. Part of being a scientist is that the answers are not anywhere near as interesting as the questions. A workshop like iGrid provides enough answers to formulate the next questions.

Q. Can you trace the geneology of iGrid for us?

A. The whole idea started when we networked McCormick Place in Chicago and did remote visualization as part of SIGGRAPH 1992. Three years later we connected IWAY at Supercomputing in San Diego, and it was important because it was the first time anyone had gotten the federal networks to talk to each other. That was just ten years ago. It was also one of the first conferences where the Web was used extensively. We also learned how to build this international team, so we staged the first iGrid at Supercomputing 1998 in Orlando, Florida . Because we wanted to emphasize international collaboration, we decided to push our luck and have the 2000 iGrid in Yokohama, Japan, then in Amsterdam in 2002.

Q. The vast majority of applications demonstrated at iGrid 2005 will also be international. Why that emphasis?

A. The Supercomputing conference has always been fundamentally a U.S.-focused show. But for iGrid, almost all of the demonstrations have some international component because we were and are funded by the National Science Foundation to support science and engineering education across international networks. The idea was to give people in the States and their international colleagues a chance to show off their stuff in a supportive environment. Obviously, a real huge issue is to keep the U.S. preeminent in a sector where funding is rising rapidly in other countries such as Canada , Korea , Japan , and China . The European Unions funding as a group way outstrips U.S. funding in this area. We used to be the only act in town, but now were part of a global community and struggling to keep up.

Q. How cohesive is the international networking community?

A. To our great surprise and delight, when we did the program in Yokohama it went very smoothly. Although there are many cultural and other things that are very different in Japan and Asia , the networking world is the same. They speak the same language. The group of people we deal with technologists, scientists and engineers all work together and like it. We discovered that communicating with our Pacific Rim counterparts was no problem. They have the same technology and the same culture of technology. The same holds true in Europe .

Q. What is the core networking technology driving iGrid 2005?

A. In 2002 in Amsterdam , we had 10-Gigabit circuits, so it was the first time we had more bandwidth than we needed. But now we can control lambdas, these wavelengths of light, so its about user control and application control of the lightpaths. Several different demonstrations will involve controlling lightpaths and bringing things in simultaneously from all over the world. There are also demonstrations of equipment that does that, and applications that use the extreme bandwidth. This bandwidth essentially now exceeds the capacity of computers talking to each other singly, so you wind up having parallel communications going on. Many of the experiments rely on the traditional Internet, but a surprising number use lightpaths.

Q. Whose networking equipment will be used during iGrid?

A. We received a very nice donation from Cisco Systems, and we have loaner equipment from Force10. The Cisco Catalyst switch and the Force10 switch are the heart of our standard networking, and we also got loaners from Nortel Networks to do the Layer 1 lightpath work, which in the past year has become the basis of the next phase of international networking. We are hoping that now we have this capability here, the campus and the UC system will commit to making San Diego one of the core hubs for lightpath networks, along with Chicago, New York, Amsterdam, London, Tokyo and other Asian open Internet exchanges. San Diego is a rational place to install this capability on a permanent basis, with both Calit2 and the San Diego Supercomputer Center here. For iGrid, the networking in San Diego will connect through the national CAVEwave, PacificWave and National LambdaRail to international connections to the east and west, and through CENIC to UC Irvine, University of Southern California and other California destinations. These arent networks that people depend on for their banking, so we can try adventurous things and floor the accelerator without worrying about inconveniencing anybody.

Q. Although iGrid will use the latest networking technology, most of the demonstrations will be application-based, right?

A. It is fundamentally focused on applications and content, and content is king. People want to spend money on applications, they dont spend money on computer hardware for hardwares sake. Scientists will use our technology if it helps them do better science. So iGrid is very focused on applications, to show what people are doing in a world of almost limitless bandwidth.

Q. What are some of the recurring themes among applications to be demonstrated at iGrid?

A. One that has emerged this year is high-definition television (HDTV) over lightpaths, including streaming HDTV and interactive HDTV. Attendees will also witness a new industry standard called 4K. At 4096 by 2180 pixels, 4K is over four times the definition of regular HDTV. Sony is lending us one of their first 4K projectors, and NTT will stream 4K content from Japan to San Diego . And professor Peter Otto is working with Skywalker Sound to synchronize audio for these 4K demonstrations, and that should be very impressive. More and more people are using this technology to see and interact with data coming from sensors, and an HD camera can be a sensor. With the drop in price of HD cameras from $100,000 to as little as $3,000, and with networking increasingly built into these cameras, you can just plug these things into a network and off you go. This will be a tremendous push on network capacity, because an HD camera exceeds a Gigabit if you dont compress it, and although 4K imagery can be compressed down to under a Gigabit, its huge in uncompressed form, and you want to keep stuff uncompressed if you want to edit it or do post-production effects on it.

Q. How important is security as an issue for this years applications?

A. There is a lot of attention on security. Whether they are dealing with medical images, or Hollywood movies, or remote visualization for the military, all of these groups have extreme needs for security for different reasons. One is legislated, one has to do with intellectual property and money, and the other is for national security. They are all very important, and increasingly people want to move security to the network and away from the end user. I devote way too much time every week to keeping my laptop safe, and I shouldnt have to. We are trying to solve that problem for high-end images, so we are doing an advanced security demo with Canada s Nortel Labs, where they build the security into their switches. You wouldnt even know its there, but if someone tapped into the line, it looks like gibberish.

Q. So iGrid goes well beyond what many people would label gridcomputing or networking?

A. The Grid should not only control computing and disk-space resources, but also networking resources. To be clear, we call it the lambdagrid, because it goes beyond the traditional Grid that uses the shared Internet, into the realm of dedicated lightpaths, or lambdas. The lambdagrid gives scientists the option of having schedulable or dedicated resources that are shared in some way, and the cost of these resources is no longer the stumbling block. These networks are expensive, but not extremely expensive any more. If you take all the networks that were putting into iGrid and you pay for them, its a fraction of the cost of the people who are using them. A national or international network doesnt cost much more than a full professor or a networking technician per year, so that changes the equation.

Q. What draws so many of your colleagues from around the world to iGrid?

A. Over the years we have developed an international community of people who trust each other and who see the benefit of teamwork with those in visualization, in networking, in computing, in simulation, or in HD video. We lend and send each other pieces of equipment that cost $50,000 or $500,000, and we know well get them back. We trust each other with our technology and with some of the secrets that we hold dearest. This is kind of our celebration of how much we trust each other. Maxine Brown and I have been running events for a long time, and like we did with SIGGRAPH, we want iGrid to be a place where groups of people could show their exquisite technology to fellow scientists. In iGrid we are trying to get people to bring stuff out of the lab and share it with each other. Its not like a regular conference where you get up and show PowerPoints. There are almost no canned presentations, although there will be a symposium running concurrently to round out the information. But its not the dominant reason people come. They come to see the technology and applications in action.

Q. Since visualization is very important at iGrid, what other technologies will be used to showcase individual applications?

A. Apart from Sonys 4K projector in the Calit2 digital cinema, we have multiple, high-intensity projectors that are 1600x1200 pixels. We have a big stereo screen in a smaller auditorium, and were building a 100-megapixel screen in another. We will also have a desktop virtual-reality device that shows 3D images but requires no special glasses and tracks your position by neural networks and video. Important to the HDTV theme, NASA is bringing a personal HDTV stereo device that also requires no glasses. We also have two setups with lovely 63-inch Samsung plasma panels. These are all facilities so people can show their work in the best way possible, but they also serve another purpose: 49 different groups will be showcasing their applications on a total of ten different screens,so they will be sharing the visualization facilities. Sharing is not an inconsiderable obstacle when you are pushing the limit of the technology, so these groups will hopefully learn from each other.

Q. You are a co-principal investigator on the Calit2-led OptIPuter project. What do iGrid, Calit2, and the OptIPuter project have in common?

A. We decided to hold iGrid in the new Calit2 building to force the immense capability and infrastructure of the building into functional being in a huge rush. By rights, it should have taken a year to bring this sort of network infrastructure into a 215,000-square-foot building like this, but were doing it in weeks. As for OptIPuter and iGrid, they have similar goals. OptIPuter is using lambdagrids to help scientists see and move their data. But iGrid is a superset of the OptIPuter: there are other people at iGrid with ideas some complementary, some competing on how to architect this world where bandwidth is no longer a constraint. We hope to witness applications and technologies at iGrid that can be used in the OptIPuter. We are all learning from one another, and as these things evolve into real software products, companies will adopt the best of each technology. Were not at the end of the rainbow yet.