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Earth Explorer is an online source of news, expertise and applied knowledge for resource explorers and earth scientists. Sponsored by Geosoft.

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Connecting in the cloud: web services and explorers

Ian MacLeod, Geosoft Chief Technologist, looks at the past, present and future of cloud computing from the perspective of earth explorers and exploration. The ultimate experience, long term, is one where all of our data and the tools we apply to our data are hosted in the cloud. But there are several challenges to overcome before we get there.

April 1, 2011

From the context of exploration, what is cloud computing?

The "cloud" is all the information and services available to explorers on the Internet. As explorers, we all use some kind of personal computer workstation to manipulate and visualize exploration data, as well as collaborate with colleagues. When all our programs/tools and data are within our computer, or possibly on systems connected to a local area network, that is considered local computing. But when an explorer accesses data from somewhere on the Internet, uses an Internet-hosted tool, or passes a processing task to an Internet server – that is cloud computing.

Strictly speaking, all web experiences outside our company network – including web browsers – are "cloud computing" experiences. Of course our primary interest at Geosoft is on how cloud computing can and does help us accomplish exploration tasks; and how Internet-based tools and services can be built into our familiar and important tools and workflows.

How is cloud computing currently being used in exploration and the geosciences?

Probably the most important use of the cloud in exploration today is accessing and downloading data via government or other data supplier web sites. We can also access cloud data servers directly from desktop software tools. For example, Geosoft's public DAP server has provided geophysical and DEM data directly to Oasis montaj, ArcGIS and MapInfo users for many years.

We are also seeing increased use of web rendering services to draw the information for us so that it is simply displayed in our application. ESRI's use of embedded data links in LYR is an example that exposes ESRI's rich library of general-purpose GIS data to explorers. Geosoft's DAP data servers also expose this capability to render more exploration specific data to WMS-capable tools like Geosoft Dapple, as well as Geosoft-aware applications that harness Geosoft web services.

And we are just beginning to see completely on-line hosted applications that perform simple tasks, such as IGRF calculators, simple geochemistry and statistical analysis, etc.

Also emerging are on-line document and application hosting solutions, such as Google Docs and Microsoft Office Live, which deal with common office documents and file sharing. Although the use of such collaboration spaces and tools is still very small relative to desktop office tools, the trend to do more with these cloud solutions is undeniable. Platform leaders like Microsoft are making huge investments in advancing cloud systems and this will ultimately benefit explorers too.

Of course, we all rely on the cloud to facilitate collaboration through e-mail, whether hosted in a web application or on our workstation. E-mail is an example of an application that blurs the lines between desktop applications like Microsoft Outlook that simply harness a cloud service (e-mail delivery), or a corporate-hosted web portal such as Outlook Web App (which I love), or a fully cloud-based solution like Google Gmail. Our experience is very similar in all cases, but in the case of Google Mail, the cloud also maintains copies of all my mail.

As a closing example, Geosoft has been providing customers will cloud-based license management services for well over 10 years. When we started to expose such services in the late 1990's, the term "cloud computing" had not been coined. We just thought this would be a very good way to help us and our customers efficiently manage our licenses.

In the short-term, what's just around the corner for cloud computing?

We believe the next generation of cloud-based services for exploration will include more robust, processing capabilities – specialized tools that launch from within your existing workflow and use a web-service to do the work. An example of this is Geosoft's 3D geophysical inversion service, VOXI, which we expect to release in 2011. VOXI will allow an explorer to apply advanced geophysical inversion technology to their local data by calling a Geosoft hosted web inversion service from their existing workflow.

We also expect to see greater availability, and advanced capabilities within on-line data access tools. While our vision for improved data access was shaped over 10 years ago, and inspired the development of Geosoft DAP server technology, finding and accessing on-line data continues to be a challenge for many explorers. The benefits of improved access to on-line data are compelling, and together with the acceleration of our collective understanding of on-line spatial data we expect to see significant developments in this area over next few years.

What are the challenges preventing us from moving forward with cloud computing within exploration?

Three major challenges we see are: network access and bandwidth, the complexity of exploration workflows, and the need for high-performance 3D visualization.

Network access and bandwidth – as resource explorers we often find ourselves in remote locations, with poor or no internet connectivity. This is changing, but in many parts of the world the improvements are slow in coming. At the same time our need to be connected to interpret and collaborate around data continues to increase, and Internet connectivity is certainly a requirement for cloud-computing. So what we are seeing is greater separation between exploration data collection (in the field, disconnected or poorly connected), and data interpretation (in the office, well connected to the Internet). As a result, field data collection systems and processes continue to improve together with methods to efficiently send data back to the "office" for interpretation.

Workflow Complexity – Exploration workflows are complex, which is not surprising given the breadth of data types and the information that we work with. Geosoft has spent 25 years optimizing workflows, and making tools as simple as possible, but complexity remains. The development cost of moving these complex workflows to fully cloud-based tools – across a network, with servers, or with web pages – is very high and takes time. At Geosoft we are doing a lot in this area, and we take advantage of the latest web development tools, but there is much to learn, apply and change. We all need patience for these systems to evolve.

3D Visualization – The Earth is three-dimensional, and explorers need to work with data and visualize prospects in 3D. Today, 3D graphics cannot be performed efficiently, or within a shared environment, on servers. Computing workstations are still required to take full advantage of 3D graphics capabilities. This is a very real consideration when architecting cloud-based solutions for explorers. For example, while we designed our VOXI inversion service to tap into servers for the heavy number-crunching, it relies on the desktop platform for the critically important 3D user interface. This requires cleverness in compressing and moving quite large volume data between desktop and server environments.

What are the benefits of cloud computing versus local computing?

One of the important benefits of cloud computing is removing the need for explorers to install and host applications that can be more efficiently managed as a cloud service. For example, about 30% of our support volume at Geosoft is related to software installation and maintenance. Our ability to install and maintain software as a service shared by all, frees individual explorers from having to do this.

Another benefit is that we, as the service provider, can choose the most appropriate technology to support a service. It is not important to the explorer what hardware, operating system, or application technology we use – it just has to work. For example, with a cloud-based service like VOXI, we are able to provide and maintain a very high-performance computing cluster that we can all share. Sourcing and installing such systems is simply not practical for the majority of explorers today.

A third benefit is more rapid and responsive release of capabilities to explorers. The development cycle of deciding what to do, planning the work, developing and testing a solution, and preparing our support and account management teams to work with our customers can take two years or more. We currently release new capabilities as part of our annual workstation update, which means that if we miss a release date, availability of the tool or capability may be delayed by a year. As we move to more cloud-based services we can break this process down and separate the work to be more focused on the need. For example, if we find an important bug in our system we are currently challenged to deliver the fix in the next release which may be 6 months away. But if the bug is in one of our cloud services we can correct and fully test the fix, then immediately update the service transparently to all the users of that service.

The cloud also has great potential to accelerate our ability to collaborate with others. As we become more comfortable connecting with data, tools and people on-line, more collaboration and knowledge sharing opportunities will be a simple click away. For Geosoft, this includes our ability to support explorers on-line, and for members of our community to help each other.

As for working locally, it will take time for all the technologies we need in exploration to mature to the point that they can fully meet our needs in the cloud. So working locally will be with us for some time. Local data and tools will continue to offer the highest performance in most cases - particularly with 3D visualization. But the tables are starting to turn. For example, with our cloud-based VOXI service explorers will be able to perform inversions in a few minutes that today take hours on local computers.

Given the benefits of cloud computing, and current limitations, we see a gradual integration of cloud services into local computing applications over time, and indeed we already see this with many of the examples I gave earlier.

What are Geosoft's plans for web services?

VOXI, our 3D Voxel inversion service, is Geosoft's first online processing service and it will be released end of year. VOXI is the beginning of a long line of geophysical inversions services that we will be rolling out over time. We intend to work with inversion research partners to apply the technology that makes VOXI work over the Internet to new and developing inversion methods. We also have a significant effort being applied to using 3D inversion technology to help model oil and gas exploration problems with a specific focus on the needs of sedimentary geology and workflows.

In parallel with the release of VOXI we will be significantly expanding the way we support and educate explorers through on-line information and interaction with Geosoft and peers in the explorer community. The Internet has become a primary source of information, and Geosoft will be harnessing this shift in the way we learn to the maximum extent possible.

We also continue to review the capabilities we offer locally, and consider which of these could be better deployed as a web service.

Where do you see earth exploration and cloud computing going in the long-term?

The ultimate long-term experience would be analogous to Google Gmail, or Microsoft Office Live Workspace – one where all of our data and the tools we apply to our data are hosted in the cloud. For the explorer community we serve, we are working towards a "Geosoft Explorer" cloud experience

In this experience, we stop caring about where the data is, or how big it is, or if we have installed the latest versions of our tools. We will simply sign-on and start working, and because all the data and tools are on-line we are able to more easily collaborate with our teams and achieve the results we need.

Although it will take time to resolve challenges, and to design and develop web services that meet the needs of explorers, we are firmly on the path to ever-increasing use of the cloud in exploration.