Magazine

A Sea Change


Data from the deep like never before

Scientists knee-deep in data are longing for the storage capacity and power of cloud computing. University of Washington oceanographer John R. Delaney is one of many who are desperate to tap into it.

Delaney is putting together a $170 million project called Neptune, which could become the prototype for a new era of data-intensive research. Launching this year, Neptune deploys hundreds of miles of fiber-optic cable connected to thousands of sensors in the Pacific Ocean off the Washington coast. The sensors will stream back data on the behavior of the ocean: its temperature, light, life forms, the changing currents, chemistry, and the physics of motion. Microphones will record the sound track of the deep sea, from the songs of whales to the rumble of underwater volcanos.

Neptune will provide researchers with an orgy of information from the deep. It will extend humanity's eyes and ears—and many other senses—to the two-thirds of the planet we barely know. "We've lived on Planet Land for a long time," says Delaney, who works out of an office near Puget Sound. "This is a mission to Planet Ocean."

He describes the hidden planet as a vast matrix of relationships. Sharks, plankton, red tides, thermal vents spewing boiling water—they're all connected to each other, he says. And if scientists can untangle these ties, they can start to predict how certain changes within the ocean will affect the weather, crops, and life on earth. Later this century, he ventures, we'll have a mathematical model of the world's oceans, and will be able to "manage" them. "We manage Central Park now, and the National Forests," he says. "Why not the oceans?"

To turn Neptune's torrents of data into predictive intelligence, teams of scientists from many fields will have to hunt for patterns and statistical correlations. The laboratory for this work, says Delaney, will be "gigantic disk farms that distribute it all over the planet, just like Google (GOOG)." In other words, Neptune, like other big science projects, needs a cloud. Delaney doesn't yet know on which cloud Neptune will land. Without leaving Seattle, he has Microsoft (MSFT) and Amazon (AMZN), along with a Google-IBM (IBM) venture at his own university.

What will the work on this cloud consist of? Picture scientists calling up comparisons from the data and then posing endless queries. In that sense, cloud science may feel a bit like a Google search.


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