VGL: A game changer for geophysics

VGL: A game changer for geophysics
June 16, 2016 Karen Mecoles

“The speed at which we can now carry out our geophysical inversions was not possible before. It removes all of the pre-processing that used to take us days to complete.”

— Dr Carina Kemp, Geoscience Australia

The Virtual Geophysics Laboratory (VGL) is an online portal that provides researchers with access to integrated software, allowing them to process data within minutes, regardless of their location.

The VGL saves time, money and resources by allowing geophysicists to create seamless data sets from multiple sources regardless of where the data is stored.

Geophysics is the study of the earth and the analysis of the physical processes and properties of the earth such as snow, ice, oceans, lunar cycles and the atmosphere, to better understand the role the earth, and its elements, play in space. In order to mitigate natural hazards and protect the environment, geophysicists must source minerals and analyse data to better understand the Earth’s role in this complex environment. However, quantitative analysis methods can often be time consuming and complex, requiring an advanced understanding of computation technologies and algorithms.

In the past, geophysicists have had to search multiple sources, download files individually, and reformat disparate data into seamless data sets, all from their desktop computers, in order to make sense of their complex data.

Established in 2012, the Nectar – funded VGL is an online portal which has created a new way of working for geophysicists. A collaboration between CSIRO, Geoscience Australia, and the National Computational Infrastructure (NCI), it was developed in close collaboration with end-users and geophysicists from Geoscience Australia, the Australian National University, Monash University and the University of Queensland.

Dr Carina Kemp from Geoscience Australia said that the VGL allows researchers to login to gain access to integrated software, allowing them to process data within minutes, regardless of their location. “The VGL saves time, money and resources by allowing geophysicists to create seamless data sets from multiple sources regardless of where the data is stored so they can run their data from anywhere in real time,” Dr Kemp said. “Researchers can also use the VGL to send their data to the Nectar Cloud where they can compute, collaborate and process their work within minutes, allowing researchers to mash multiple files together and reformat files quickly and easily.

“The VGL is also a great platform for collaboration, allowing researchers to gain information from one another instantly.” For geophysicists such as Dr Kemp the VGL is a “game changer” and is significantly improving work efficiencies. “One of the greatest benefits is the collaboration and the possibility of sharing now.” she said. “Geophysics algorithms can be quite complex and compute infrastructures seem to grow in complexity with each new generation.

“The VGL makes it possible to share and develop a community code and work together to improve it by allowing researchers to run their data more efficiently.”

The provenance workflow is another significant outcome of the VGL, enabling researchers to record their procedures and results. “Previously it was up to individual scientists to make sure they were documenting their procedures properly to enable repeatability of the results, but in VGL it is all recorded for us,” Dr Kemp said. “Now using the VGL, taking care of the cropping and pre-processing, such as re-projecting the data on the fly, we can complete our work in a matter of hours, instead of months.”

The VGL also lowers the barriers for researchers to enter computational facilities and makes geophysical processing and modelling tools available to the broader community at a far lower cost.

Another outcome of the VGL was the development of the Virtual Hazard Impact and Risk Laboratory (VHIRL), to improve aspects of natural hazard and risk modelling. VHIRL was built by repurposing and extending VGL components to provide a Scientific Software Solutions Centre for the discovery, access, and deployment of scientific codes that have application within emergency management and natural hazard assessment. This demonstrates the benefits of leveraging re-usable virtual laboratory infrastructure for other scientific domains.

Alison Kirkby was integral in implementing the geothermal modelling aspect of the VGL, and said that the VGL is making it easier for geophysicists in terms of both cost and accessibility to high-end computers – previously the domain of computer specialists. “The VGL brings consistency and repeatability to the geophysical processing community,” Alison said. “The exploration community in Australia will now have access to geophysical datasets Australia wide, and will be able to process them and access previously calculated results.

“Increasingly we’re seeing that geophysical processing software is moving from being monolithic, highly-expensive software that is licensed per-organisation, per-seat, to small modularised tools that are accessible as mobile apps in the Cloud. “Such applications could be globally accessible and the VGL infrastructure is ideally suited to exploiting these tools.”

Dr Lesley Wyborn, senior advisor at Geoscience Australia said the VGL is creating bright future opportunities. “What we are seeing is a vast reduction in the time it takes to locate and prepare data for processing,” Dr Wyborn said. “Due to the availability of greater processing power, the data can be processed to higher resolutions and at far larger scales. “The user no longer has to invest in high-end infrastructure at their local site – they just pay for what they use and for the time they use it and can access the latest and most modern infrastructure that’s available via the Cloud. “The provenance workflow tool also lowers the barriers to entry, so you no longer need to be a highly skilled programmer who is an expert in geophysics to be able to use it.”

For more information about the VGL, go to vgl.auscope.org/VGL-Portal/gmap.html