Tuesday, March 22, 2011

GIN and wine: Interoperability and 3,000 year old bronze vessels

This morning I took the opportunity to take a brief look at some of Taipei’s more famous landmarks, including a Taoist temple, the Martyr’s Shrine, the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and culminating in the stunning National Palace Museum. Housing hundreds of thousands of Chinese artefacts, more in fact than are on display in Beijing itself, the museum is currently digitising some of its rarer books and archival documents. Seeing as they have 545,000 of these, this practically constitutes a data deluge all by itself. There is a session about humanities and social sciences applications of grid and cloud computing at ISGC2011 tomorrow, and I’m looking forward to hearing more about what is going on in the region.
While threading our way through the milling crowds in the galleries, our tour guide pointed out bronze wine vessels and cauldrons dating from more than a 1000 years BC. While I was still trying to get my head around the idea of people drinking wine from such intricately decorated cups that long ago, the guide showed us that the insides of the cauldrons were also inscribed with hundreds of tiny Chinese characters. Back in the days before paper, the rich would send letters to each other on these expensive bronze vessels, which have survived rather longer than this blog post is likely to. He also pointed out that after the unification of the script during the Qín dynasty, people all over China who spoke entirely different dialects could still understand each other through writing – the written characters were common, even though the spoken languages differed.

This seemed like an excellent example of interoperability – which allows complex systems (such as languages) to work together through a shared vocabulary. Interoperability of distributed computing and data infrastructures was the focus of the GIN (Grid Interoperation Now) session at OGF31 yesterday afternoon. Helping the community to pick its way through the obstacles involved is the SIENA Roadmap, which was presented by David Wallom of the Oxford e-Research Centre. David proposed a number of questions… such as, how do we proceed with interoperability if sufficient standards do not yet exist? What happens if a large market develops for commercial offerings without open standards specifications? What if open standards specifications exist but are not adopted by industry?
To answer these fairly tricky questions, SIENA is encouraging cross communication between SIENA and international standards bodies such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the US, Global Inter Cloud Technology Forum in Japan and China Electronic Standardisation Institution in China. A number of important standards already exist, such as Open Virtualisation Format (OVF) by Distributed Management Task Force, Open Cloud Computing Interface (OCCI) by OGF and Cloud Data Management Interface (CDMI) by Storage Networking Industry Association.
The Roadmap has a range of recommendations for discussion and development, such as a call for guidelines for dealing with data privacy, the long term curation of data, and liability and taxation issues in clouds and grids that span legislative boundaries. The community should discourage fragmentation while at the same time preserving innovation in the developing e-infrastructure. If you put different communities in separate silos, how will they collaborate on cross disciplinary work, which is increasingly important to solve big issue science such as climate change?
Public sector and commercial providers should engage with standards and the EC should directly fund participation in developing open standards for e-Infrastructures and e-Government in the long term. A clear process is needed to track emerging standards, technologies and best practices, to gather a repository of information that can be used to guide e-infrastructure projects such as EGI and EMI. Sound security policies should be funded, as well as on-demand cross-domain provisioning of high speed data transfer links, connecting users to cloud providers. Finally, the Roadmap recommends funding the procurement of open source or commercial software solutions, leaving the research community free to innovate where they can best add unique value, beyond the scope of commercial solutions.

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