Special Report: Computational Science — Behind Innovation and Discovery
Outstanding computational infrastructure—the foundation for scientific and operational excellence
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory recently established a high-speed fiber optic network that connects Richland, Wash. to Seattle and transfers data 300 times faster than before. The connection will enable major new research programs in homeland and cyber security, information visualization, health, and the environment. "In the case of very large information transfers, what once took several days to transmit will now take a few minutes," said Jerry Johnson, director of PNNL's Information Technology (IT) Services Division.
The IT Services Division of the Computational and Information Sciences Directorate plans, implements, secures, and operates PNNL's IT services and information systems to support the Laboratory's research and operations. The division has established a world-class computer infrastructure for PNNL by recognizing that "to the user, there is no 'IT infrastructure,' there are only services."
The high-speed Richland-Seattle connection is one example of a challenge requiring service-oriented problem-solving. Improving Internet connections had previously been limited by cost and by a lack of a communications infrastructure to and within the region. Now these obstacles have been overcome—the new network connects PNNL with a regional Internet exchange center in Seattle, and from there it will connect to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) UltraScience Network and other national and international high-speed networks that allow scientists to collaborate and share large amounts of data worldwide.
Collaboration and cross-disciplinary research have long been a PNNL focus, and being a "collaboratory"—where information-sharing tools allow diverse teams to work together, regardless of time or location—has been a goal as early as 1992. Today, the Laboratory provides innovative electronic collaboration and information-sharing tools from extensive videoconference and web conference facilities to an Electronic Library Notebook—a web-based system for individual or joint authoring and recording of research activities and results, to name a few.
PNNL also implemented information systems to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of in-house business processes such as human resources, purchasing, records management, and security. The Lab adopted an industry "best practice" of applying commercial off-the-shelf business information systems whenever possible. When no appropriate commercial or government solution is available, the Laboratory develops its own business applications, some of which have been adopted by other federal research facilities and even sold commercially.
PNNL has kept operating costs well below industry averages through effective planning and management of information technology resources and investments. As a result, strategic improvements have been made in computer infrastructure that have led to new research program areas, increased researcher productivity, and improved efficiency of laboratory support functions. Future plans include improved sharing of operational data using web services and adding a content management function—a set of processes and technologies supporting the evolutionary life cycle of digital information—to capture and share information.