By Sarah Bahari
On a battlefield of the future, a complex computer network will link ground troops and air combat personnel, snipers and decision makers, soldiers and superiors. Snap decisions will be made with the most up-to-date information available, both to hit enemy targets and to avoid civilian casualties.
The University of North Texas is leading a National Science Foundation Industry/University Cooperative Research Center to create cutting-edge software that will make such complex networks possible.
The Net-Centric Software and Systems Center — which also includes two other universities and about a dozen high-tech companies — is pioneering research that aims to revolutionize how complex information is gathered, shared and used. Its applications are far reaching, from the military, aerospace and emergency management to health care and telecommunications.
“This is the future of technology,” says Krishna Kavi, professor of computer science and engineering at UNT and director of the center. “Networks must be faster, smarter and more interconnected than ever before.”
While the center is new, Kavi has some 20 years of expertise in high-performance computing, including a two-year stint as a program manager for the National Science Foundation. He has developed new ways to design processors and to organize programs to make computer memory more efficient.
“Net-centric” refers to software and information that is readily available over a network or one central location rather than on individual computers. Some of this technology already exists, but it is in its infancy and frequently does not meet reliability or dependability requirements.
Researchers point to FedEx’s package tracking system as a prime example of successful net-centric technology. The system links employees, customers, suppliers and partners across the world and can instantaneously provide the location of a package.
The Net-Centric Software and Systems Center, which is in its first year, is one of about 40 NSF centers nationwide that develop long-term partnerships among industry, academia and government and focus on a variety of issues from the development of renewable energy sources to the prevention of child and adolescent injuries.
The NSF will give each university in the net-centric center $55,000 a year for the first five years. Each business will contribute $30,000 a year and will have royalty-free access to the research conducted. Academic partners of UNT are Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas at Dallas. Corporate members are Boeing, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., Raytheon Co., Texas Instruments, T-System Inc., Cisco, Codekko, Fujitsu, GlobeRanger, Electronic Data Systems and Hall Financial Group.
The center could eventually draw five or six universities and 25 to 40 companies, Kavi says. Researchers envision at least a decade-long commitment.
David Struble, a senior principal software engineer for Raytheon, says the collaborative nature of the research attracted the company to the center.
“The ability to engage in joint research projects and potentially transfer technology from university labs to real world applications is certainly a key benefit,” says Struble, who is serving as chair of the center’s industrial advisory board. “The diverse resources of the center also help us generate new business opportunities and extend our product lines to international markets.
“We are able to accomplish far more in collaboration with our partners than we can by ourselves,” he adds.
Researchers say they are finding many applications for the emerging net-centric technology. Rather than a fixed set of capabilities, net-centric offers a continuously evolving network that can instantaneously adapt without human interaction to meet a particular challenge.
Engineers could better coordinate traffic lights around a city. Airlines could use the software to minimize delays and track luggage. In fact, a major initiative is under way by the Federal Aviation Administration that will use net-centric technologies to minimize the time a passenger spends on travel, referred to as “curb-to-curb” time.
Until recently, researchers generally have tried to adapt current systems rather than create a complete overhaul, Kavi says, which has led to ineffective technology.
The partnership could lead to major advances, says Farokh Bastani, a member of the center and an endowed chair at UTD.
“Research is often done in a purely academic setting, and it’s not always clear that the most urgent problems are being solved,” Bastani says. “By working directly with companies, we know the most pressing challenges and can focus our attention on those challenges.”
So far, the center has selected six projects. Kavi is leading a team working to improve the performance of software running on computers with chips containing two or more processors, often known as multi-core systems. In another project, researchers are studying how to define and evaluate software safety and reliability, a major concern to industries and government looking to switch to a net-centric system.
Jeff Tian, associate professor of computer science and engineering at SMU, says the center will benefit from different areas of expertise coming together.
“Each university, each researcher, will bring a different set of skills and experience to the table,” he says. “This is a much more effective way to approach research.”
Graduate students also are heavily involved in the research. Tomislav Janjusic, a graduate student in computer science and engineering at UNT, is working on a project to alleviate what is known as the processor-memory speed gap, the bottleneck caused by the slowness of computer memory in comparison to processor speed.
“This would have applications across the board,” Janjusic says. “Several companies are very interested in finding a solution to this problem.”
Janjusic says after graduation he is interested in working for a private company on computer architecture and memory sub-systems. Collaborating with industry partners through the center has been excellent training, he adds.
Research conducted through the center, Kavi says, not only will lead to breakthroughs in net-centric technology, but also will create a lasting academic-industry-government partnership in the North Texas region and beyond.
“The center is a win-win proposition,” Kavi says. “It has the potential to change and improve technology vital to our future. The North Texas region will be at the center of research that has worldwide implications.”
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