Scientists create their own Web 2.0 network with nanoHUB Steve Tally, Purdue University News Services
Posted on Tuesday, August 21 2007
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Teenagers may not have heard about it, but there's a Web 2.0 site that's a hit with scientists and engineers.
nanoHUB.org, a so-called science gateway for nano-science and nanotechnology housed at Purdue University, is taking the tools of Web 2.0 and applying them, along with a few tricks of its own, to further nano-scholarly pursuits.
The result is a Web site that is a required bookmark for people who get excited about algorithms, carbon nanotubes, nanoelectronics and quantum dots - the current hot topics on the site.
Soon, other science disciplines, such as pharmacy and medical research, will be launched using the same technology.
Gerhard Klimeck, a professor of electrical and computing engineering and lead of the nanoHUB project, says the site gives scientists and students access to resources that they would otherwise have to learn to use.
"I'm a computer scientist, so you can give me a UNIX account and a password, and I'm good to go," Klimeck says. "But others would take weeks to learn how to use these tools. In nanoHUB, if you know the science you can begin to use the tools immediately. nanoHUB puts scientific tools into the hands of people who wouldn't normally touch them with a 10-foot pole."
Use of nanoHUB has increased fivefold over the past two years, and there are currently more than 24,000 users. That's small compared to the number of Facebook or Linkedin users, but it still represents a significant slice of the nanotechnology community.
Peter Osterberg, an associate professor of engineering at the University of Portland, lists nanoHUB on his Web site as "The best darned nanotech Web site on Earth."
"Yes, I am very enthusiastic about nanoHUB.org," Osterberg says. "My students thoroughly enjoy the nanoelectronics course material along with the online simulations. I use it almost daily since I first learned about it."
The nanoHUB is a project of the National Science Foundation-funded Network for Computational Nanotechnology, a consortium of research universities, government agencies and corporate research labs.
Ian Foster, the University of Chicago's Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor of Computer Science, director of the Computation Institute at Argonne National Laboratory and the person sometimes labeled the father of grid computing, says nanoHUB is one of the underappreciated successes of the United States' cyberinfrastructure.
"By focusing on the immediate needs of researchers, educators and students in nanotechnology, nanoHUB has pioneered methods that have allowed thousands of users to benefit," Foster says.
Michael McLennan, a senior research scientist for the Office of Information Technology at Purdue, says that just as Google is famously powered by its secret algorithms, the secret sauce of nanoHUB is a software application that is between the supercomputers at national research facilities that power the site and the Web interface. This "middleware," named Maxwell's Daemon, also finds available computing resources on national science grids and sends job requests to those computers faster than the blink of an eye.
"Maxwell is actually running back here at Purdue and reaching out to high-performance computing resources on the TeraGrid and other science grids across the nation," McLennan says. "This middleware is more sophisticated than running a Java applet in the Web browser."
nanoHUB is the first of several planned science hubs housed at Purdue.
"Eventually we will release Maxwell as open-source software once we test it, package it and write documentation for it," McLennan says. "However, there are still groups that don't want to build their own hubs, even with the middleware, and we are contracting with those groups to build hubs for them."
On nanoHUB, nanotechnology researchers can share software tools, lectures and presentations, or other resources.
"We have a self-serve process where scientists can upload the resources," McLennan says. "It's not quite as easy as adding a bookmark to del.icio.us, but more like purchasing something on amazon.com."
The nanoHUB takes advantage of several Web 2.0 technologies:
* Like YouTube and Digg, nanoHUB consists of user-supplied content. On the site, users find software, podcasts, PowerPoint lectures and even Flash-based video tutorials.
* Like sites such as Flikr or YouTube, nanoHUB has dynamic tags that automatically aggregate into subject categories.
* Like Netflix, users can rate any resource on nanoHUB. Software, podcasts, lectures and contributors' contributions all can be rated by the community.
The real stars of nanoHUB are its simulation tools. So far 55 nanosimulation software tools have been made available through the site for subjects such as nanoelectronics, chemistry and physics. These tools allow researchers to change data or views of their simulations and see real-time changes. In the last 12 months, there have been more than 225,000 such simulations run on nanoHUB.
"You can run simulations and easily compare results, which is something you can't do with simulation tools normally," McLennan says. "You can see characteristics, such as how electrons flow through a nanotube, and easily download the data. These types of simulations are critically important to many industries and areas of research, such as in semiconductors or biomedical devices."
The one Web 2.0 technology nanoHUB is lacking is a way to connect colleagues into a social network. McLennan says they have tried a few social networking tools on nanoHUB, but none have proved to be as popular as the scientific tools.
"We don't seem to have the recipe right so that the scientists and engineers want to chat about themselves," he says. "On the other hand, we're not trying to be Facebook or Wikipedia. We're trying to make scientific tools available online, and we're succeeding."