by Andrew Hallan, Alexander M. Samsonov and Wolfgang Ziegler
Last December, 20 scientific institutions and industrial companies led by GMD set up a Europe-wide consortium to write a proposal for the 2nd call of the EUs Information Society Technologies R&D programme. The preparation of a successful proposal required close collaboration between consortium members, together with strict adherence to the European Commissions formats and procedures. The various parts of the proposal were prepared at the widely dispersed partner sites and distributed, discussed and combined in a shared workspace on the Web. This workspace was created and managed using BSCW, a tool developed by GMD. The consortium never held a meeting.
Scientific research repeatedly exposes new problems. Some of these, such as the investigation of non-linear waves in solids, require exceptional computing resources, beyond the capacity of any one computing centre. The aim of our proposal was to make it easier for scientists working on these problems to combine resources from a variety of high-performance computing centres.
Our consortium was a large one, spread across Europe from Spain to Russia and from England to Armenia. By the time that we had assembled the right partners, we had only two months to write the proposal. Writing an EU R&D proposal is a complex process, where scientific objectives and approach must be reconciled with the distribution of tasks between partners and an overall budget. The geographical spread of our partners and the lack of time effectively prevented us from holding the meetings typical of R&D consortia.
The solution was to organise all the collaboration through the Internet. But from the beginning it was obvious that just setting up e-mail exploders and an ftp-site would be insufficient for discussion and management of documents. There would be confusion and wasted work because of missing functionality, such as:
We decided to set up a shared workspace for the partners using the BSCW tool developed by GMD. BSCW allowed partners to use any Web browser to check the status of all documents, to upload and download files, and to add their own comments. It also provided smooth integration with word processing, database and scheduling applications on the partners own workstations. The security features and versioning enabled the editors to maintain a complete and consistent view of the whole proposal, accessible to all the partners. With the underlying clarity and security provided by BSCW, ad-hoc e-mails and telephone calls were used just to resolve difficult points.
In less than two months, we succeeded in building a complex, high-quality proposal of 100 pages plus an administrative and financial database, all through the virtual workspace provided by BSCW. Although almost all partners were using BSCW for the first time, it was accepted and used from the beginning thanks to the intuitive GUI and the comprehensive on-line help. As a result, the consortium as a whole never had a meeting. The four partners managing the proposal held just four working meetings face-to-face. At the end of the process all the documents required by the Commission were available online in the workspace, allowing electronic submission of the proposal to Brussels within a couple of minutes.
The advanced Web technology of BSCW allowed successful and cost-effective collaboration on a pan-European scale. It reduced dramatically total travel expenses for partners and saved considerable time for creative work. Negotiation and preparation of the proposal was done almost entirely via the Internet, and fax and mail were negligible. Moreover, the positive experience with long distance on-line document preparation and collaboration encouraged us to reduce the budget for travel and other expenses in the project itself.
Once the proposal is accepted by the European Commission, we will continue to use BSCW Web technology. This will allow a smooth and efficient transition through contract negotiations and into the management of the project itself. Furthermore, part of our project will be devoted to the further development of Web technology to manage user accounts and to ensure security in geographically dispersed high-performance computing. Results of the project will also be available in the European Grid Forum EGRID.
BSCW website: http://bscw.gmd.de/
Wolfgang Ziegler - GMD
Tel: +49 2241 14 2258