Feds sample hot Java apps

Government scientists are getting the first taste of what some call the next Internet "killer app": Java-based collaborative software environments.

Leading the development of these environments is the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, where participating students have self-assuredly dubbed their project Habanero, after the hottest chili pepper on the planet.

And because it was NCSA that brought us the Mosaic browser, which popularized the World Wide Web, the group's bold allusion carries some credibility.

NCSA director Larry Smarr describes the NCSA Habanero as a "software framework" that "will lead to the same kind of exponential explosion that Mosaic brought. It's going to be able to make [people] work together on the Web."

Meanwhile, Loral Aerosys Inc. is creating a Java-based environment in which multiple users can share and manipulate the same telemetry display on the Web. The environment is being created for NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Collaborative tools written in Java are the cutting edge, according to a spokeswoman for JavaSoft, an operating company of Sun Microsystems Inc. "They're still new, but we've seen inklings and rumblings. Java lends itself to those applications," she said.

Major Players Sign On

Other major players in the computer industry agree. Last week, Microsoft Corp., IBM Corp., Novell Inc., Apple Computer Inc., The Santa Cruz Operation Inc. and others announced that they will be including Java in their future operating systems. IBM will be including Java in its next version of Lotus Notes.

"Java applets bring a lot more flexibility and power" to collaborative applications, said Vic Langford, vice president for Internet commerce at Novell, who added that Novell is "looking at developing some [applications], specifically groupware," based on Java.

"Today the Java platform consists of a relatively rich object-oriented language and a more rudimentary set of [application programming interfaces]," said Alan Baratz, president of JavaSoft. "One of the things we're working on right now is extending the platform in APIs in some very key areas," such as video, audio and 3-D visualization. These APIs would boost the development of collaborative tools based on Java, he said.

The NCSA and Loral projects aim to enable programmers to transform single-user Internet applications into collaborative tools.

Habanero is "a framework, a facilitator" for turning single-user applications into collaborative tools, said Larry Brandt, program manager for advanced information systems at the National Science Foundation. "It's supposed to be a Tinkertoy set." Habanero is not dependent on the Web. Developers can use it to create collaborative tools that operate among a series of users, independent of the Web and Hypertext Markup Language (HTML).

The ease with which single-user applications can be made collaborative using Habanero varies widely, depending on the application. "It's not just like magic," said Larry Jackson, who heads the Habanero project. However, he said, "you can take just about anything that someone has made as a single-user program and turn it into a collaborative program, assuming you've got the source code."

For instance, programmers can take applications written in C and partially reprogram them for the Habanero environment, Jackson said. However, applications written in Java adapt and perform the best.

Visible Human and Habanero

NCSA has used Habanero to turn the National Library of Medicine's (NLM) Visible Human database, which contains 3-D images of the human body, into a collaborative tool.

Before, individual users could access and interact with 3-D Visible Human images, using a Web browser that supports Java applets.

Now, because of Habanero, a professor can use the Visible Human images to teach surgery techniques to multiple students on the Web. In a teaching session, multiple users see the same dynamic image.

In the future, any participant could perform virtual surgery on the on-line image while all the others watch the procedure in real time on their own browsers. That session can be recorded, stored and replayed. "You can capture everything that takes place to create training aids," Jackson said.

The Visible Human database matched well with the capabilities of Habanero, Jackson said, because the source code was available to NCSA and because a Java applet for viewing the database had already been developed. Earlier, NLM worked with Syracuse University to develop a Java program for accessing portions of the database with a Java browser. As a result, adapting the Visible Human for Habanero took only one afternoon, Jackson said.

Similarly, the University of Illinois' Center for Atmospheric Sciences has used Habanero to develop a collaborative tool for viewing weather imagery.

Other federal agencies, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Geological Survey, are examining Habanero for applications.

"We're experimenting," said Bill Miller of USGS. "We may be able to build a collaborative structure to help us answer questions from the public" as well as support scientific collaborations using Habanero, he said. "Since we deal with maps and images, being able to put a graphic up and move images around would be very, very advantageous."

Jeff Johnson, a software engineer with Goddard's Control Center Systems Development team and a Loral employee, led the development of a Java-based environment to distribute and share Hubble Space Telescope information. "Distributed users can create a new graph or zoom in on a display" that all users see, he said. "Eventually, our vision is to add real-time audio and video."

What makes the Loral project and Habanero similar is that they are both based on Java, which means they are platform-independent environments.

"There are other collaborative tools," said R.P.C. Rodgers, an NLM research scientist, "but for me, the winning combination is that it's got to be free, and it's got to be reasonably robust. This seems to fit the bill. I think tying it to Java was a shrewd move."

"Our goal is to create a collaborative environment so compelling you'd want to use it even if your collaborators are in the same room with you," Smarr said. In the future, many users could be collaborating within a Habanero-enabled application, engaging in real-time chat and running individual programs on their PCs, all at the same time, he said.


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