Based on some recent experiences, I want to try to redefine cyberinfrastructure. While I think Craig Stewart’s 2010 definition is still useful, new thinking might also have benefits.
Let’s start with the elements of cyberinfrastructure.
At the most basic level, these elements are simply people and things.
But there are different kinds of things: ideas and facts (data). And some ideas can be instantiated in a physical object (hardware), while others cannot (software and processes). This brings us to five fundamental cyberinfrastructure elements:
Cyberinfrastructure is then the integration of some of these elements for the purpose of scholarship, which I’ll define as the development and sharing of knowledge.
Putting this all together:
Cyberinfrastructure is the integration of elements of people, hardware, software, processes, and data, for the purpose of scholarship: developing and sharing knowledge.
(I don’t have any strong feelings about the word cyberinfrastructure itself, and would be fine with it being replaced by another word, but I do think we need a word for this concept, and in the absence of an alternative, I’ll stick with cyberinfrastructure for now.)
Craig originally defined:
Cyberinfrastructure consists of computing systems, data storage systems, advanced instruments and data repositories, visualization environments, and people, all linked together by software and high performance networks to improve research productivity and enable breakthroughs not otherwise possible.https://doi.org/10.1145/1878335.1878347
Comparing this to my definition, Craig’s computing systems are my hardware and software, as are his data storage systems, his advanced instruments, his visualization environments, and his high-performance networks. His data repositories are my hardware, software, and data. His people are my people and my processes, and his software is my software.
One difference, which is probably more a difference of the times than any profound disagreement, is that I’m exposing data itself as fundamental.
A second difference is that I’m also calling out processes, which I think Craig implicitly includes in people. I think this explicit addition of processes allows me to bring cybersecurity into cyberinfrastructure more cleanly.
Another difference is that I’m not grouping and naming a number of the things that Craig did specify, preferring to work at a lower level. Perhaps my fundamental cyberinfrastructure elements could be seen as atoms, and Craig’s as a mix of atoms and molecules?
A final difference is that Craig’s definition requires these elements to be used to “improve research productivity and enable breakthroughs not otherwise possible,” while for me, this desire to do things better and learn more is part of our scholarly culture, not tied to the cyberinfrastructure itself. I also add transmitting knowledge, as I think cyberinfrastructure has a role in education.
I also want to compare this with work done by the Campus Research Computing Consortium (CaRCC), and in particular, their five facings model. I am partially writing this in response to their use of the term “Research Computing and Data (RCD)” in their vision and mission, which I initially thought was limiting because it only named two elements, missing software. In the process of writing this, I realized that this term also missed people and processes, though to be fair, CaRRC is focused on them in its vision and mission; it just looks at them as orthogonal to RCD, and it does include software implicitly in RCD.
As I hope is clear, I have a great deal of respect for Craig and his colleagues who came up with this original definitions, in the context of many others who were thinking about these terms and ideas around the same time. I also have a lot of respect for the CaRCC community, and the huge amounts of effort they have put into our overall community over the past 5 years. Finally, my thinking about this and feeling there was a need for a new definition came most directly from discussions at the recent CI Workforce Development Workshop 2020 over the past few weeks.