Bringing IT Challenges Down to Earth

NASA's Earth Science Data and Information System Project presents challenges that are recognizable to many enterprise IT builders.

With a growing number of users of an exploding collection of data—originating and residing in heterogeneous systems—NASAs Earth Science Data and Information System Project presents challenges that are recognizable to many enterprise IT builders.

Applying the principles of an SOA (service-oriented architecture) and taking advantage of the service discovery capabilities of this years Version 3 update of the UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery and Integration) protocol, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and its contractors have streamlined data access while also enabling a richer ecosystem of customized applications for analysis and interpretation.

As changes in climate, polar ice coverage and other environmental parameters become urgent global concerns, NASAs SOA modernization is improving earth science understanding and enabling better policy decisions.

In the beginning

Chartered in 1990, earth science Data and Information System Project, or ESDIS, has a broad portfolio whose key tasks include project management, systems engineering and technical direction of systems that archive and distribute earth science data, along with the definition of high-level standard data products.

The roots of the system go back four decades to the United States first Earth-observing satellites. Those resources now comprise multiple constellations of active spacecraft as well as many legacy data sets.

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NASA defines 12 different domains in which earth science information has beneficial applications: agricultural efficiency, air quality, aviation, carbon management, coastal management, disaster management, ecological forecasting, energy management, homeland security, invasive species, public health and water management.

These varied interests entail radically different combinations of urgency, complexity and security. Space-based systems also yield petabytes of data, pushing the state of the art in data visualization and creating both technical and managerial challenges.

The bottlenecks of conventional database architectures and application development techniques dont suit the growing diversity of emerging needs for this information, said Robin Pfister, lead information management system engineer for the ESDIS effort at NASAs Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Md.

"In 2000, we had one human-machine interface for data search and access," said Pfister. "Due to different standards and search approaches used in distributed archives, result sets were difficult for an end user to evaluate."

Results were not formatted consistently, she added, and about 25 percent of the results that should have been returned from any given search were not seen by users because of inconsistent availability.

Growing commercial use of earth sciences data has yielded a growing variety of commercial off-the-shelf software, but Pfisters ESDIS team was concerned that adopting any such commercial solution might not meet requirements for extensibility and evolution.

As a result, five years ago—long before SOA was a mainstream buzzword—Pfisters team began working with contractors to define an SOA as the foundation for ESDIS future platform.

"The SOA-based approach gave us flexibility to support the community at the enterprise level beyond what we originally thought," Pfister said.

"The fact that this solution can support a wide range of providers has attracted a lot of interest from other areas of NASA and other agencies, in both science and nonscience applications."

ESDIS built a metadata clearinghouse and order broker dubbed ECHO, a somewhat- strained acronym for Earth Observing System Clearinghouse. Operational development of ECHO began in late 2000, with availability to users beginning in November 2002.

The resulting freer flow of data, though, highlighted weakness on the applications side, according to Pfister.

"While trying to meet the general needs of all users, the old system left most users less than satisfied because they couldnt perform tasks specific to their science needs," she said.

"As a result of stakeholder interviews during formulation of ECHO, we learned the data access needs and expectations of the NASA Earth Research community were changing," Pfister continued.

"We extended the objectives of the system to accommodate these known changes and to be flexible to accommodate future, inevitable changes."

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