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OSGi at the UK's biggest science lab

Matthew Gerring | Jan. 13, 2017
Developers at Diamond Light Source set out to migrate a mission-critical, Java-based acquisition system to dynamic class loading. Here’s what they learned.

As a Java developer, you undoubtedly know about the goodness of OSGi and breaking up your class loading into modules. After all, OSGi is the dynamic module system, right? Not a huge deal. You might have played around with declarative services, or perhaps you are waiting for Jigsaw? Java these days is a very mature technology stack and even though the barrier of adoption for OSGi is low–and I mean really low–plenty of products have yet to migrate to dynamic class loading.  This is especially true if the product is large, mature, and not intended for a major refactor. At three million lines of Java-server and a thick-client code, our product at Diamond Light Source fits exactly that description. Nonetheless, we recently moved our code base to OSGi. In this article I’ll explain why we made the change and offer seven real-world challenges encountered and how we resolved them.

Java technology, applied to science

Diamond Light’s synchrotron works like a giant microscope, harnessing the power of electrons to produce bright light that scientists can use to study anything from fossils to jet engines to viruses and vaccines. The United Kingdom’s  largest science project and one of the world’s most advanced facilities, the synchrotron is used by over 10,000 scientists running experiments.

To produce the high energy light that scientists need to conduct their research, engineers at Diamond Light accelerate electrons, then move them around using magnetic fields. The light comes out of a circular machine, which is the starting point for a huge range of experimental techniques. Where it exits, the light goes through an optics hutch. Individual experiments are run using our Java-based acquisition system.

The Diamond Light Source synchrotron

Figure 1. Beamlines radiating from the Diamond Light Source synchrotron. Image credit: Diamond Light Source.

The linear experimental parts of the facility, radiating from the circular synchrotron, are called beamlines. Currently, 33  beamlines are either in operation, in construction, or being designed. All of them have or will require a Java server and a client able to coordinate experiments and serve as an interface for visiting scientists to control the synchrotron. The software must be able to move motors (because there are usually x-rays in the experimental hutch of the beamline); trigger detectors (imagine something like a digital camera); and write large binary files of data, often at high rates. Some beamlines require detectors able to write many megabytes of data at a kilohertz rate.

Modernizing a legacy system

Part of Diamond Light’s Java software stack was inherited from the Daresbury synchrotron called the Synchrotron Radiation Source. The SRS was closed in 2008, but some of its software lived on in Diamond Light’s acquisition and analysis systems.  This has been very useful because, as we know, algorithms never die (although they may mutate). While some of the major features and ideas for working with the software came to us from SRS, a developer today might choose to do some things differently. For instance, the legacy system’s client and server used CORBA to communicate. It also employed a large classpath with many interconnected dependencies in the server. And it relied on a thick client based on Swing. The client had a neat contributed design, however, which allowed custom experimental parts to be mixed with general purpose ones; that was a capability we didn’t want to lose.


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