THE National Ignition Facility, currently under construction at Lawrence Livermore, will be a showcase for the most modern laser technologies, optical components, and diagnostic instruments available. Another showcase of advanced design--perhaps not as visible, yet essential to the success of the facility--will be NIF's distributed computer control system. Now under development, this system (detailed in the article beginning on p. 4) will precisely control and monitor tens of thousands of components to ensure that the world's most powerful laser works precisely as planned. Indeed, NIF's computer control system provides the nervous system for a facility that the Department of Energy considers vital to America's Stockpile Stewardship Program. NIF is one of the cornerstones of this program and makes important contributions to fusion energy development and the basic sciences.
The NIF control system's hardware will feature proven processors, workstations, file servers, and data networks in a design permeating nearly every meter of the 192-arm laser facility. It is in the area of software development, however, that our engineers have decided to take some major risks by adopting the latest developments in software engineering and design based on new, international standards. These new concepts, such as object-oriented programming and the use of the internationally recognized Common Object Request Brokerage Architecture (CORBA), offer tremendous advantages because they will allow us to easily modify, extend, and upgrade the control system years from now.
Until NIF, no one had ever used these concepts for a large experimental facility. But as the article relates, adopting these new standards makes sense, given the sheer scale of hardware and expected modifications to NIF over its anticipated 30-year lifespan. Indeed, in light of the astonishing rate of change of computer hardware, the growing capability of diagnostic equipment, and the new directions our experiments are likely to take, it's a safe bet that, as we did for Nova, we will be making many changes to NIF and its control system over its entire lifetime.
Being locked into an inflexible control system in which a hardware upgrade forces significant investment in new software simply does not make sense, either scientifically or economically. What's more, modern techniques are allowing us to build our software efficiently and to strict engineering standards, with a relatively small cadre of people, and in modular fashion for easy testing and upgrading.
So far, it looks as if we made the right choice as we review the first of five planned software iterations. Our American software industry partners are pleased, too, as they work to extend the market for their tools to make software more flexible, powerful, and easy to modify.
NIF's computer control system is likely to be the vanguard for other large scientific research facilities now being planned, especially those with expected long operational lifetimes. When the first experiments on NIF begin early in the next century, I am confident that the control system will be ready to expertly manage, monitor, and document our NIF experiments for many years to come.


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