Ian Foster

by Ruth Laugesen / 02 April, 2011
Raised: Wellington Role: Director, the Computation Institute of the Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago Resides: Chicago
For a glorious three years after Ian Foster left university, he didn't look like he had the career drive to one day be named the third most ­influential IT scientist in the world.

The first thing he did after finishing at Canterbury in 1980 was take a gap year - followed by another, and another.

He sailed to Europe via Auckland, Tahiti, Hawaii, British Columbia, New York, the West Indies, Bermuda, the Azores and Spain. Then he spent 18 months in France practising the language. Next, he planned to go back to sea. A computer science major, Foster had been captivated by IT at university. But for now, he wanted to sail around the world.

As a necessary evil, he went back to work to pay for a boat, landing a job in London's young IT industry. But behind a desk, something clicked into place, and Foster turned into a workhorse. He became captivated by computing all over again, and his sailing plans evaporated. He went on to gain a PhD at Imperial College in London, and then on to Chicago's Argonne National Laboratory, where he has worked ever since.

In the 30 years since he left New Zealand, Foster has risen to the forefront of the IT industry.

In 2007, Nature magazine ranked Foster the third-most influential IT scientist in the world, based on how often his research was cited by his peers.

Foster, 51, is often called the father of grid computing. He and his colleagues at Chicago saw early on that the future of super-powerful computing was not in every­one having their own megacomputer, but for a pooling of computing power through the world-wide web, much like a power grid. Researchers would be able to build networks of computers over the internet. Foster and his colleagues created the Globus Toolkit, which is now the standard means of building a grid.

In the past few years the rise and rise of so-called cloud computing has taken the vision of remote computing further, with providers like Amazon and Google selling internet-based computing services.

Foster is director of the Computation Institute, a joint institute of the University of Chicago and Argonne. He has won the Global Information Infrastructure (GII) Next Generation award, the British Computer Society's Lovelace Medal and R&D magazine's Innovator of the Year. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of ­Canterbury.

Foster grew up in Wadestown, Well­ington, and went to Wellington College. His father was an inorganic chemist at the former Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and his mother was a legal secretary. Foster credits his education at the University of Canterbury's computer science department as giving him a head start. "They had this amazingly good set of people; it was a brilliant education."

John Penny, professor of computer science at Canterbury at the time, remembers Foster as spectacularly bright.

"He was also very amiable. I've met a lot of clever people who are obnoxious."

It was clear Foster could do anything he wanted in life, but it wasn't clear at that stage whether he would aim high. "He was unusually able, but he didn't have huge ambitions. He had a total self-confidence that was based on the fact he could achieve whatever he wanted to achieve. He was someone who knew he was capable of tremendous things, but didn't seem obsessed with it."

The hulking mainframe computer Foster used at Canterbury in the late 70s had the same capacity as one of today's mobile phones.

Data and instructions had to be entered into the computer on cards with punchholes, as computers did not have enough spare memory to both store instructions and process them. A stack of cards was effectively the computer's external storage, a comic forerunner of the memory stick.

Now Canterbury has one of the 500 fastest computers in the world, and Foster's research lab is about to commission the Beagle, among the world's 50 fastest.

Foster says although the speed of change in technology has transformed New Zealand's prospects, it has also brought new perils. On the one hand the internet has abolished distance and access to knowledge is more immediate. Peter Jackson can make films in Wellington because he can send the rushes overnight to Hollywood. "New Zealand scientists can participate as fully in online discussions as anyone else, and their blog can be every bit as influential," says Foster.

But there are new risks, too, as the pace of change in technology accelerates. The speed of innovation means laggards will be left even further behind. In most fields of scientific study, computation is fundamentally changing the nature of research.

Foster calls it the Red Queen's race. In Alice in Wonderland, the Red Queen explains that "it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

Says Foster: "The world has become flatter, but in some senses it's also becoming lumpier as places with access to more advanced capabilities differentiate themselves more. Silicon Valley is ahead of the rest of the world for a range of reasons.

"Someone who's got access to a very powerful super-computer or access to a very powerful and large database can ask questions and get answers that someone else can't. At the same time someone sitting in New Zealand or South Africa can nevertheless access resources they would not previously have been able to access. I think a combination of these two trends is at work," he says.

Democratising access to powerful computing capabilities is at the heart of much of Foster's work. He believes we are on the verge of a major transition to huge computing power becoming available much more cheaply. He likens it to the liberating effects of the spread of electric power. At first, electricity consumers had to have their own generator or water wheel, but in time electricity was universally available relatively cheaply at the flick of a switch, which in turn spawned a new generation of household gadgets.

His goal is to provide the tools scientists will need to run their research labs from a coffee shop. Not only would it allow scientists to work more flexibly and be more mobile, it would also do wonders for their image.

Already, small-business owners can work at the coffee shop using cloud computing that stores information remotely. They can do their accounts on a cloud computing application such as Xero, and check email remotely through Gmail.

"People are excited by cloud computing partly because they see it as a solution to this otherwise apparently unsolvable problem of how to keep up with the huge quantities of data being produced in both industry and science.

"To be competitive you have to have a means of managing and allowing rapid analysis of data."

In the US, cloud computing has dramatically lowered the cost of start-up IT businesses, says Foster. "It used to be, if you wanted to start an IT-oriented company, there were very substantial start-up costs in terms of acquiring equipment, hiring staff, [building] expertise and operating that equipment. Now you can just sit down in your coffee shop and get your credit card and acquire systems on, say, Amazon cloud resources. It reduces the barriers to innovation.

"Part of the challenge is that science is increasingly IT-intensive, which certainly forms a barrier for many people. Running a lab nowadays would require you to acquire expertise and infrastructure and connect this all together.

"That's ... where we're putting a lot of effort, working out how to build the infrastructure as a service with the cloud offerings that support data-intensive science. We also need to work out how to take the activities that people would normally have to carry out in their own labs and work out how to outsource those and automate them in a way that will ultimately perhaps allow you to do your work from a coffee shop."

New Zealand might even have an edge, quips Foster. "New Zealand with its very active cafe culture has obviously got this whole unappreciated advantage in terms of moving science forward."

Foster lives in Chicago with his wife, psychiatrist Angela Smith, and his two children, aged 13 and 11. Having young kids is fun, he says, but the global nature of scientific collaboration puts huge pressure on him to travel more than he likes to. "It can be very hard to stay home sufficiently often."

So did Foster ever finish that around-the-world sailing trip he abandoned in London? No, he says, but he now sails on the Great Lakes.

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