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ODU's VMASC Creates Research Track for Study of Interoperability Issues

As modeling and simulation matures as a discipline, researchers at Old Dominion University say its demands will change. There'll be less impetus to develop brand-new solutions to M&S problems, and more pressure - both financial and practical - to adapt tools that have already been developed to create new solutions.

That ethos is what drives researchers with expertise in the area of study known as interoperability. And ODU's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC) hopes to fill the need for that expertise through the creation of a research track dedicated to interoperability issues.

"We have already implemented and paid for a lot of our solutions," said Saikou Diallo, a research assistant professor at VMASC and head of the interoperability track. "Systems exist already. How can we better connect them? How can we get the best out of our existing solutions, so that we can solve new problems without having to rebuild everything from scratch?

"In that sense, though, when you try to reuse these existing solutions, you have to come up with a way that, when you connect these solutions, they don't lead to some sort of Frankenstein. This field is really there to help make sense of the connected solution, the whole that emerges once you put the pieces together."

Diallo said the research into interoperability issues amounts to "breaking the glass" between discrete areas of research, and seeing what fits across different disciplines. But VMASC hopes to do far more than use tools to solve interoperability problems. The hope is that Old Dominion University will become a hub of research in interoperability theory.

Diallo described the relationship as three-sided: interoperability theory leads to the development of a framework that can be applied across disciplines. That framework leads to the development of tools to solve modeling and simulation interoperability issues. Those tools, in turn, lead to further growth and refinement of interoperability theory.

"If we work on solving a problem, we always try to publish on that solution, and then incorporate that back into theory, which could be either opening a new research area we hadn't thought about, or confirming something our theory already predicted," he said.

"The nature of the theory doesn't change, it's just where it's applied. Overall, the problems are the same, and the theory should be able to work in multiple areas."

ODU has been developing expertise in interoperability issues for the past few years.

Andreas Tolk, who joined the university in 2002 as a research scientist at VMASC, and who, since 2006, has been as a faculty member in the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology, received the first-ever Technical Merit Award from the Simulation Interoperability Standards Organization (SISO) last fall.

The award recognized the work of Tolk, an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering, for "being at the forefront of scientific thought" in modeling and simulation interoperability issues for more than a decade.

Tolk said he hopes the "melting pot" of interdisciplinary research at ODU will help nurture this body of research aimed at breaking down the typical way of tackling modeling and simulation problems.

"We are so busy in cutting down the woods, we do not understand that we're using an axe, and someone else might have a chainsaw. And we also don't understand what it means to cut down these woods. So that's what we're trying to understand in interoperability research as well: Why are we doing things theoretically, and what tools can we use practically," Tolk said.

When today's students and future graduates begin work in VMASC's interoperability research stream, Diallo said they'll be getting practical experience they can directly apply in the workforce.

"In terms of practicality, future grads will likely work more on interoperability issues than on developing new systems because the money, the finances, to build these new systems won't be there. From a business standpoint, nobody wants to throw away what they have to build new stuff," Tolk said

"The earlier that students know what type of questions to ask, what to look for, how to do it properly, the more marketable they'll be when they come out."

In the past two years, interoperability research at VMASC has attracted nearly $1 million in investment, Diallo said. The success in research led furthermore to several invited book chapters for textbooks and invited expert panel discussions during workshops. The paper summarizing the main ideas in the "Levels of Conceptual Interoperability Model (LCIM)" were referenced by more than 170 researchers, based on recent Google Scholar data. As well, two doctoral dissertations have been completed under Tolk's advisement.

This article was posted on: February 1, 2011

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