ISIS has partnered with Tessella since 2008 in the development of Mantid, a powerful data reduction and analysis application, which it uses to analyse Neutron Scattering and Muon Spin Resonance data. Now, an increasing number of world leading research facilities are adopting the software to help them grapple with huge volumes of information.
Background and Challenge
Funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, ISIS is a world-leading centre for research in the physical and life sciences at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford in the United Kingdom. Its suite of neutron and muon instruments allow the properties of materials to be understood at the scale of atoms. The organisation supports a national and international community of more than 2000 scientists for research into subjects ranging from clean energy and the environment, pharmaceuticals and health care, through to nanotechnology, materials engineering and IT.
In 2003 ISIS built a second target station designed to open up new opportunities in soft condensed matter, biomolecular sciences, advanced materials and nanoscale science. This investment provided the ISIS team with the opportunity to explore a new approach to developing the software needed for the instruments and experiments that would be housed in the new target station.
“Software and data analysis tools are fundamental to our overall scientific process. They enable our community to generate and visualise the results of their experiments. This is particularly important for many new instruments, some of which have hundreds of thousands of detectors and generate a volume of data similar to the Human Genome every day,” explained Dr Laurent Chapon, Head of Crystallography, at the start of the project. “However, until we started working on this project in 2007, it has been accepted practice within the science community for software to be developed and managed by the scientists themselves, typically on an ad hoc instrument by instrument basis. There is a hidden cost with working this way – a lot of duplication of effort as well as poorly documented and tested code that scientists find it difficult to use and maintain.”
Mantid UI in action
ISIS turned to Tessella as a partner that has a deep understanding of scientific fields combined with strong complementary expertise in project management, consultancy, software design and development. Together, they formulated a project known as Mantid (Manipulation and Analysis for Instrument Data).
Mantid provides an extensible data reduction and analysis framework for the neutron and muon data that is independent of instrument and analysis technique and supports high-performance computing and the visualisation of scientific data. Although it was created to manipulate and analyse Neutron and Muon scattering data, it can be applied to many other techniques.
Care has been taken to isolate as much complexity as possible from the areas that may be extended by users, while providing them with powerful objects to manipulate their data. The framework also provides a full virtual model of any instrument and its geometry using XML. This allows algorithms to be truly independent of the instruments, enabling complex attenuation corrections and simplified diagnostics.
Over the years, Tessella has worked closely with ISIS to refine and enhance this framework. By delivering rigorous software tools to the scientific community on a regular basis, Tessella reduces errors and increases productivity. Such has been the success, that three years into development ISIS has been joined in the development effort by the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) in Oakridge, Tennessee to further the project as an international collaboration. More recently, other world leading facilities have started to contribute including the Paul Scherrer Institut in Villigen, Switzerland, and the Chinese Spallation Neutron Source under construction in Dongguan, China.
“The development project has become an international collaboration and that has been helped by Tessella’s global reach. The team at Oakridge includes a Tessella developer who facilitates the data analysis in the same way the team here has been working for years,” adds Dr Jon Taylor. “At SNS, every scientific instrument is included in the Mantid framework and users have more than doubled. We have also seen interest expressed by the Institut Laue-Langevin in Grenoble, which operates one of the most intense neutron sources in the world, while the European Spallation Source in Copenhagen has also joined Mantid.”
Tessella works within the collaboration to continually enhance the functionality by releasing four updated versions of the application per year. Most recently, 3D visualisation which enables users to ‘slice’ the data much like an MRI scanner has been added, helping users interpret massive volumes of data more accurately and more quickly. The adoption of Mantid across the UK organisation has also grown.
“Four years ago we applied Mantid to approximately half of our 27 different scientific instruments; now it is deployed on almost all of them. People across the organisation have seen the mission critical data reduction and analysis it provides and have been keen to adopt it,” continues Taylor. “And we’re always eager to push the boundaries. Mantid is now available as a downloadable desktop application, which makes it more available and user-friendly. We’re also planning to make certain functions accessible over the internet for wider use.”
Aside from the software itself, one of the major reasons for the success of the project has been the expertise and professionalism that Tessella provides. The company handles not only regular housekeeping tasks like release schedules, testing, documentation and code repositories, but more importantly can also project manage and reprioritise activity in order to respond to urgent requests.
It also invites daily feedback on requirements and user cases in order to continue developing the code. Regular training courses give users an insight into the framework and provide an opportunity to further build the skills and knowledge base of the instrument scientists. “One thing Tessella really brought to us was the ability to manage such a large software project. It’s not just about resourcing but also about formality and professionalism. For a scientific environment, that is nothing short of revolutionary,” comments Taylor. “Furthermore, we simply would not have the ability to build the relationship with the Oak Ridge SNS without Tessella. It provides the credibility and ability to manage scale that has attracted these overseas institutions.”
With an increasing number of global research sites expressing an interest, Mantid is well positioned to become a de facto tool for data analysis in this scientific field. As it continues to add new users around the world, Tessella will continue to refine the software and add new functionality.
“Mantid eliminates duplication of effort and enables scientists to focus on the science – not the software,” concludes Dr Andrew Taylor, Director of National Laboratories, STFC. “Tessella’s professional approach to software has made a significant contribution to the international impact of the project and enabled Mantid to be eagerly adopted by world renowned organisations. We look forward to continuing our close collaboration with Tessella as the platform evolves further.”
Professor Robert McGreevy, the Director of ISIS, added: “Investing in a professional, dedicated software team has resulted in significantly improved levels of user experience and service for the ISIS scientific community, which in turn helps us maintain our reputation as a world leading neutron source. Choosing to partner with Tessella is one of the best things we have ever done!