Archive for December, 2007

Keeping Quiet

December 4, 2007

How quickly another month slips by! It’s been a quiet period for the blog, but a busy time otherwise. I am writing this entry during a quiet hour of my Moroccan holiday, sitting on the roof terrace of my hotel with a beer. Shouldn’t I be enjoying my trip? Well, frankly, I’m sick of the bazaars, guided tours and hard-sell carpet shops. The event that prompted my to add a blog entry, however, came yesterday when I was in the Internet cafe. Everybody was on Facebook and I mean everybody (including me). A couple of years ago, and you could have replaced this scene with ten or twenty elderly PCs logged onto Hotmail. There is a lot of hype in Web 2.0, but sometimes you realise that it’s not all nonsense. Why has social networking supplanted e-mail for so many people? I’m not going to pretend I know the answer to that, just that there is an interesting change underway in the way people communicate via the Internet. 
This rant does have a point, though. For the past couple of weeks, myself and a couple of colleagues (Paul Watson and David Leahy) have been batting around various e-science social networking scenarios. I should point out that we are by no means alone in thinking that some aspects of social networking could help push all of the various e-science technologies out to a far wider audience. The myExperiment people have an interesting set of workflow sharing services and, over time, these could evolve into a more general e-Science framework. I think an e-Science platform along the lines of Facebook (with data storage, identity management, accessible APIs etc) could be a great thing. It could be hosted centrally, generously provided with storage and compute power and could become the platform of choice for provisioning e-Science applications. It would certainly simplify life for developers if they didn’t have to worry about certificates, data storage and security and could just focus on providing the functionality their users require.
As far as software goes, I have been working towards providing a skeleton framework (in .NET) for such a platform. It’s pretty rudimentary, but I have finally managed to put up a simple webpage that users can sign in to using Windows LiveID. Once signed in, there are web services which provide basic information about the User, the groups they are in etc. Like I say, it’s not much at the moment, but I’m happy enough with the way it’s been put together to start adding some more functionality. At the very least, there’s going to be a data storage API and….. I won’t pretend that this hasn’t been a steep learning curve after 8 years of Java and J2EE development experience. It’s not that .NET is worse in any significant way (both platforms will happily leave you staring blankly at the screen wanting to kill somebody) it’s just different. I am getting the hang of things now though – for what it’s worth, I like the .NET way of doing web services more, although I’m not a huge fan of the online MSDN pages. There is also a lot more information on Google to help troubleshoot J2EE problems than there is for .NET developers, which has slowed me down a bit. Things are, however, made better by the fact that, conceptually at least, both platforms are very similar. The major difference is that J2EE will involve mystifying XML configuration files, whereas .NET will involve mystifying GUIs and Wizards. Maybe, if we succeed in producing a really decent e-Science social networking platform, e-Science developers will be spared some of these low-level hassles.