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March 13, 2006

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Welcome to the March 13, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Aggregated Information Threatens Privacy
Norristown Times Herald (PA) (03/13/06) Phucas, Keith

Technological advances have enabled the federal government to increasingly gather and search American's personal information, says the American Civil Liberties Union, who also notes that the government often purchases individuals' personal information that it cannot obtain legally from data aggregating companies. The ACLU warns that Lexis Nexis, ChoicePoint, and others have built a multi-billion-dollar industry out of the increased demand for personal information and lax privacy laws, while the information collected and shared often contains glaring inaccuracies, such as erroneous criminal records. The federal government was running 131 data mining initiatives in 2004, with plans to launch another 68, according to the Government Accountability Office. The Verity K2 Enterprise, a Defense Intelligence Agency initiative to search for terrorists overseas with connections to U.S. citizens, is particularly controversial. A Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center to obtain disclosure of the initiative's activities was denied, and the center has followed up with a lawsuit. DIA spokesman Don Black reported no knowledge of the program, but said the agency routinely runs comparative analyses on terabytes of data, likening its activities to Google. Black also said the agency always looks for something specific in its searches. The ACLU has also warned of the numerous government contracts held by data aggregators (ChoicePoint has 35) that enable the government to skirt the requirements of the Privacy Act of 1974 prohibiting the government from compiling data about its citizens who are not the subject of investigations. Data collection is subject to a host of complex and often vague laws, which could be streamlined so that other companies would have to follow the rules of Internet service providers, who are not allowed to store customer information permanently, according to Villanova law professor Michael Carroll.
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Software Helps Develop Hunches
Wired News (03/13/06) Norton, Quinn

Pattern recognition, an innate ability for humans, has been difficult to incorporate into computers and has posed the central limitation to human-computer interaction. Rather than force computers to perform tasks beyond their ability, Icosystem founder Eric Bonabeau and his team have developed software to hone human intuition, with the software performing the computing functions and the user supplying the human intelligence. The hunch engine progresses from its starting point through a series of mutations selected by the user at each stage from a bank of possibilities until it produces a version that is satisfactory to its user. One application of the hunch engine is a photo editor that allows a user to select from nine versions of a scanned image, allowing indefinite mutations until the software produces an acceptable final product. Icosystem intends to include interior-decorating and name-selection applications in the hunch engine, and postal workers in France have already used the technology to determine ideal carrier routes. Coalesix, a spinoff of Icosystem, is testing the use of the hunch engine to develop new drugs based on variations of the interactions of molecules. The mutation aspect of the hunch engine can help guide innovation in directions that humans would normally overlook.
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Immigration Bill Would Add Visas for Tech Workers
San Francisco Chronicle (03/10/06) P. A1; Lochhead, Carolyn

While the debate over the Senate's immigration bill has centered on its guest-worker language pertaining to unskilled laborers, the legislation also includes provisions to increase the number of H-1B visas for skilled workers to 115,000 and start foreign tech workers with advanced degrees on the fast track to permanent residence. The annual cap for H-1B visas could increase by 20 percent a year under the skilled-worker provisions, which were included after heavy lobbying from the tech industry. Following the dot-com crash and the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress reduced the annual H-1B visa cap to 65,000, which the country reached in August, effectively halting the influx of foreign tech workers, save for a January exemption authorizing an additional 20,000 visas for workers with advanced degrees. While the revelation that some of the Sept. 11 hijackers had gained entry to the country with student visas prompted the visa cuts, concern has shifted in Congress due to widely publicized reports that the United States is losing its competitive edge in technology. The immigration bill, introduced by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), also calls for the creation of an F-4 visa category granting permanent residence to students pursuing advanced degrees in technology, engineering, mathematics, or science, provided that they find a job and contribute $1,000 to help fund scholarships and U.S. worker training. The bill would also relax labor certification requirements for qualified degree holders and open access to green cards and permanent residency for professors, researchers, and those deemed to possess "extraordinary ability." While the new immigration laws enjoy bipartisan support in the Senate and the endorsement of the Bush administration, House Republicans are opposed to any immigration increases, and voted in December to seal off the United States' southern border with a 700-mile fence.
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'New Internet' Moves One Step Forward
Network World (03/10/06) Pappalardo, Denise

The next-generation Internet was the focus of a town hall meeting last week. Proposed a year ago by the National Science Foundation, the Global Environment for Networking Innovations (GENI) would serve as experimental platform that would provide researchers with greater flexibility in carrying out their work, according to Larry Peterson, chair of the GENI Planning Group and professor and chair of the computer science department at Princeton University. The dynamic nature of computing will demand an improved Internet in the years to come, in addition to evolving security, accessibility, and manageability needs, says Peterson. He says industry will not address such issues and has no incentive to do so, adding that the current Internet determines the level of research that the academic community can pursue. According to the original design for GENI, plans call for a national and later an international fiber optic network with programmable routers, clusters at the edge sites, wireless subnets and peering to the Internet at MAE East and MAE West, which allow access to content on the current public Internet. GENI would help to "change the nature of networked and distributed systems design," say Petersen. The platform could be built in five to seven years, and could be available for research a year after construction begins.
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Carnegie Mellon to use 'Sims' to Enliven Software
Associated Press (03/13/06) Lovering, David

The next version of Carnegie Mellon University's Alice, an educational program that introduces computer programming concepts to first-time users, will use characters and animation from the popular "The Sims" video game to transform the popular teaching aid's crude three-dimensional images. Computer science professor Randy Pausch, director of the Alice Project, says, "For the intended demographic we're trying to teach, 'The Sims' are more valuable than the Disney library." Alice, which is used at over 60 colleges and universities and about 100 high schools, was designed to boost interest in computer programming by making it easily understandable. The language uses images of people and animals that are controlled by words to help students create programs. The number of computer science majors has fallen 50 percent of the past four years, while the proportion of women considering computer science degrees is the lowest since the early 1970s, according to a University of California, Los Angeles study. Pausch says Electronic Arts, which publishes 'The Sims,' "wants more women in computer science, they want more minorities in computer science...any underrepresented group." The next version of Alice is expected to take 18 to 24 months to develop.
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Research on the Road to Intelligent Cars
IST Results (03/09/06)

The IST-funded PReVENT program, a component of the European Commission 2010 Intelligent Car Initiative, is attempting to develop new safety applications in cars that will sense danger in an effort to meet the EU's goal of cutting the number of highway fatalities in half by 2010. While high costs and lack of demand stymied earlier attempts to include intelligent safety systems in cars, the technology exists today to deploy them inexpensively and on a wide scale. A dashboard display in a BMW creates digital maps with lasers and sensors to extend the driver's horizon by 300 meters to 500 meters, allowing him to anticipate what is coming around the next curve. MAPS&ADAS project partners will submit the technology for certification, and auto makers hope say the new interface could lower the cost of implementation. The project is also working to make digital maps into more than just navigation devices by incorporating information on speed limits, slopes, curves, and traffic signs to improve their use as a safety application. Project leaders expect to see the results of the initiative appear widely in cars within five years. Another PReVENT subproject, INTERSAFE, is focusing on improving traffic safety at intersections, which pose the greatest challenge to a car's onboard sensors. The INTERSAFE project is developing new vehicle localization algorithms, sensors to warn of approaching drivers, and new techniques for communication between the road and the vehicle. The system is particularly designed to help drivers when they miss stop signs and red lights, make left turns, and cross traffic. APALACI, another sub-project, is developing applications to prevent and mitigate crashes, such as tightening seat belts immediately before a crash and preparing a car's brakes to avoid an accident. "The challenge for intelligent safety systems is to avoid false alarms, so that users quickly come to trust them," said DaimlerChrysler's Matthias Schulze.
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PetaCache: Accelerating Data-Intensive Applications
HPC Wire (03/10/06) Vol. 15, No. 10,Tuttle, Kelen

A team of researchers at the Stanford Linear Acceleration Center has launched the PetaCache project to reassess the approach that developers take to data access and storage. Disks are handling more of the storage load as clustered computer systems process larger amounts of data, and increased bandwidth has sped the transmission of data between terminals in the system, though latency has remained sluggish. PetaCache is principally designed to improve latency, according to the project's Randal Melen. PetaCache relies on various forms of memory, rather than disks, to access the first byte of data. With the prices of DRAM and flash memory having fallen dramatically, the quantities of memory required to retrieve massive amounts of data from particle accelerators and other data-intensive applications are now affordable. As flash memory finds increasing use in digital cameras, iPods, and cell phones, the price is only likely to drop further. The PetaCache prototype consists of two racks of 64 servers, each containing 16 GB of DRAM, totaling 1 TB of memory. The Structured Cluster Architecture for Low Latency Access program shuttles data from the servers to batch systems that run physics analysis software to determine the lowest latencies possible. The software balances the load and organizes itself, distributing data over numerous servers with optimal efficiency, creating the appearance of a single, aggregated chunk of memory. Through the use of more inexpensive flash memory, the next prototype should contain a few tens of terabytes of memory, which approaches the scale that will be required to process the data generated by the Large Hadron Collider.
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Microsoft Researcher Honored as Computer-Graphics Pioneer
Seattle Times (03/02/06) Doughton, Sandi

Microsoft's John Platt was honored at the Scientific and Technical Oscars on Feb. 18 for his groundbreaking work in computer graphics, particularly his contributions to the computer simulation of flexible materials such as gels, rubber, and cloth. Though subsequent developers have further honed and refined his technique, Platt's approach still underpins effects such as the billowing sails of an armada of computer-generated ships in the movie "Troy." Platt was a member of California Institute of Technology computer science professor Alan Barr's circle of "brilliant nerds" that formed in the 1980s, when computer graphics was essentially primitive geometric shapes. Three Pixar employees who had also been a part of Barr's group won awards for work that built on Platt's research. Flexible materials, particularly clothing, have long been difficult to simulate accurately, and early equations could only muster enough detail and realism to create materials that resembled rubber or chain mail. Platt and Demetri Terzopoulos, now Chancellor's professor of computer science at the University of California, Los Angeles, applied rudimentary physics equations to describe the behavior of elastic materials. "You take these laws of motions for cloth and you simulate gravity, you simulate wind, you simulate contact between the cloth and the body," says Terzopoulos. After that, an animated character's clothes will automatically follow his movements. It took almost 10 years before processing power evolved to a point where the technique could actually be applied to movies, though clothing simulations are still not easy.
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Open Source Software Capability Key to 'Technological Self-Determination'
LinuxElectrons (03/08/06)

Experts from the United Nations University herald open-source software as a tremendous opportunity for developing nations to obtain economic independence, but also warn of the critical need to cultivate local expertise to support open-source development. Between 50 percent and 75 percent of Internet activity involves open-source software, and UNU experts believe that China, East Asia, India, and South America will be the largest markets for open-source solutions, though there remains a shortage of developers. "Should this situation persist, developing nations will simply remain consumers of open-source products rather than participants in the larger open-source market," says Mike Reed, director of the UNU International Institute for Software Technology (UNU-IIST). Open-source technology provides a framework that enables enterprises to develop high-value products more quickly, a key ingredient in the transition from passive consumer to active participant. Within the Linux environment, analysts predict that revenue from packaged software will grow the fastest, increasing 44 percent annually over the next four years. Open-source development will benefit the governments of developing nations as well as industry, providing low-cost implementation of local solutions and content, and greater standardization and transparency. Open source has also enabled governments to develop innovative solutions in a host of areas, including customs reform, providing online access to land titles, and electoral reform. UNU-IIST is attempting to increase the number of open-source developers in East Asia through the Global Desktop Project, aimed specifically at improving the open-source desktop. The project includes a research and engineering component, an institute of higher learning program, the incorporation of open-source programming into school curricula, and a community outreach program.
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Scientists Band Together for TRUST-worthy Research
SearchSecurity.com (03/07/06) McKay, Niall

The Team for Research in Ubiquitous Secure Technology (TRUST) initiative is performing a key role in the nation's effort to safeguard its digital infrastructure from cyber criminals. Funded by $19 million from the National Science Foundation, and led by the University of California, Berkeley, TRUST brings together computer security leaders from universities across the country to build better systems and develop better policies for government and business. In fact, policy changes can determine the effectiveness of technology, particularly with regard to the use of publicly available information such as Social Security numbers to partly authenticate an individual, according to Fred Schneider, chief scientist of TRUST. Schneider, who is also a professor of computer science at Cornell University, adds that storing large amounts of information on individuals, often without their consent or knowledge, is another issue that needs to be addressed as a matter of policy. Among other projects, TRUST participants are focusing on language-based security to develop "security grammar" for computer programming languages, as a way to warn systems and users before they run software executables and worms downloads. Participants from Stanford University have developed software for the U.S. Secret Service called PwdHash, which is designed to prevent a cyber attacker from intercepting messages in a public key exchange and substituting his own for the requested one. Experts from Carnegie Mellon, San Jose State, and Vanderbilt universities and several small liberal arts colleges are involved in TRUST, which is also receiving assistance from companies such as IBM, Cisco Systems, and Microsoft.
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GA Tech Develops Ultra-Efficient Embedded Architectures Based on Probabilistic Technology
LinuxElectrons (03/09/06)

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have used probabilistic technology to develop embedded architectures that save an enormous amount of energy, and presented their work at the Design, Automation, and Test in Europe (DATE) Conference in Munich, Germany, on March 9. Dr. Krishna Palem, a joint professor in the Georgia Tech College of Computing and the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, says the embedded architecture based on Probabilistic CMOS (PCMOS) delivers architectural and application gains by a factor of up to 560 in simulations. "Probabilistic architectures extend PCMOS to computing substrates beyond devices," says Palem, also founding director of the Center for Research in Embedded Systems & Technology. "By mixing chip measurements and simulations, gains have been shown using this technology for such applications as Hyper-encryption as applied to computer security, and through cognitive applications such as speech recognition and pattern recognition as well as image decompression." Conventional CMOS semiconductor technology is moving toward the nanoscale, and the issues of noise and energy efficiency need to be addressed. The PCMOS device uses noise as a resource for gaining greater savings of energy.
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Gadget Girls and Boys With Their Toys: How to Attract and Keep More Women in Engineering
University of Edinburgh (03/09/06)

A recent study sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council and conducted by the University of Edinburgh's Dr. Wendy Faulkner sought to investigate whether engineering workplaces are friendlier to and more supportive of men than women, based on interviews with and/or observation of 66 male and female engineering professionals covering a broad spectrum of disciplines and industrial sectors. The results of the study demonstrate that, though governments and industry have made significant progress in tapping women for engineering jobs, further improvements in both the recruitment and retention of female engineers are necessary. The engineering industry's lack of appeal to women is partly due to a persistent stereotype: The engineer as a technologically adept but socially unskilled male, which is not a reflection of reality, according to Faulkner's study. To combat this image problem, it is recommended that efforts to recruit more women focus on "normalizing" engineering as a career choice for women in order to eliminate the assumption by people both inside and outside the field that "the engineer" will be a man; recruitment campaigns that do not appeal to gender stereotypes, but do appeal to men and women's shared interest in math, science, and technology; and the promotion of engineering as a technical as well as social field. To retain more female as well as male engineers, good practice at both the university and the workplace must be sustained and promoted. Seemingly trivial aspects of workplace culture can discourage women's sense of belonging: Such factors include coarse and offensive humor, male-oriented routines for greeting and addressing each other, gender exclusive language and social circles, women's tendency to physically stand out in mostly male workplaces so that their engineering skills are de-emphasized, and sexual harassment and/or flirting. Sustained and sensitive diversity training backed by senior management can help both male and female engineers fight gender-discriminating workplace cultures.
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Government Sides Against EBay in Patent Dispute
Washington Post (03/11/06) P. D1; Noguchi, Yuki

EBay earns about one third of its business from goods sold using its "Buy It Now" system, which could be shut down if the Supreme Court agrees with a brief filed by the Office of the Solicitor General against eBay on March 10. The brief says eBay willfully infringed on patents owned by MercExchange, and though eBay was found guilty of such infringement an injunction was denied by a district court; the decision was overturned by an appellate court, and the solicitor general urged the Supreme Court to permit the injunction. EBay's argument that the appellate court applied a "nearly automatic" injunction rather than permitting the district court to use discretion is disputed by the solicitor general's brief. The brief goes on to say that the district court was incorrect in its acceptance of eBay's claim that MercExchange would not be irreparably damaged by eBay's continued operation of the "Buy It Now" system because MercExchange was willing to license its patent. Washington patent attorney Stephen Maebius said the effects of a Supreme Court decision that patent violation automatically necessitates a shutdown will be profound. "It really does tinker with the balance of power when it comes to injunctions," he said. EBay argued that an injunction should not "automatically" be awarded to a litigant: MercExchange, the contention goes, was no longer actively practicing its patent, and should therefore not try to threaten a business with an accusation of patent infringement. MercExchange founder Thomas Woolston countered that his company does practice its patent by licensing it to other companies, and claimed that "If the Supreme Court says 'yes' to the injunction, they will be saying 'yes' to competition."
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IETF Taking on 911 Problem Within VoIP
Network World (03/13/06) P. 32; Marsan, Carolyn Duffy

The IETF is working on a technical solution that could solve the problems of how to best route emergency communications such as 911 calls over the Internet and how to ensure that police and firefighters can locate and respond to VoIP 911 calls made from office buildings. The solution, which is called Emergency Context Resolution with Internet Technologies (ECRIT), will allow an IP phone to obtain its location information--such as a street address or office number--when it is used to dial 911. The IP phone will then query a database using a new mapping protocol that will take its location information and find the appropriate emergency call center. After the emergency call center is found, the IP phone will place a call to that emergency call center, which will be given the location of the caller. ECRIT will require enterprises to make a number of changes, including upgrades to their IP phones and IP PBXs. Companies will also need to create a database with the location of every IP address on the network. Jon Peterson, a NeuStar fellow and a member of the IETF leadership who is advising the ECRIT working group, says enterprises may end up using DHCP to acquire the physical location of IP addresses. "It's very simple to provide DHCP mapping to push location information down to the phone," Peterson says. ECRIT systems will not likely be deployed for several years, IETF leaders say. "This is not something that is going to get changed overnight," Peterson says.
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There's Nothing Small About Smalltalk
eWeek (03/06/06) Vol. 23, No. 10, P. D5; Coffee, Peter

While the Smalltalk programming language was ahead of its time when it appeared 10 years before Java and required high processor speeds and considerable memory budgets, the language continues to endure in Java's shadow. IBM is abandoning Smalltalk in April, though Cincom Systems has continued to refine the language's VisualWorks development tools after ANSI standardized Smalltalk as a language in May 1998. Commercial and non-commercial versions of VisualWorks 7.4 became available early this year, offering developers a laundry list of utilities and components. VisualWorks runs capably on both Windows XP and Apple OS X, providing an exceptionally open run-time environment in its browser. Smalltalk has incorporated namespaces and other features to make the programming environment more friendly to developers. "Our virtual machine isn't as widespread as the Java virtual machine, so we don't feel as much of a need to lock it down," said Cincom's James Robertson, noting the ability of VisualWorks to operate in a Windows, Macintosh, or Unix environment. Robertson also says that Smalltalk is still distinguished by its totally object-oriented nature that sometimes poses a challenge for Java and C++ to simulate.
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The Wi-Fi Revolution
Red Herring (03/13/06) Vol. 3, No. 9, P. 32

Communications services are transforming into software applications that have no special association with location, platform, or device, and phone companies' control of communications pipelines is dwindling as a result. FON, a "bottom-up" global mesh of Wi-Fi hot spots, stands to play a big role in the provision of total wireless coverage by enabling its members to access other members' Wi-Fi networks for free in return for allowing other people to use their Internet connections. Through Wi-Fi mesh networking, Wi-Fi providers can broaden their reach and offer broadband service in a wide area, thus rivaling cellular technology in performance and price. Reaching the widest swath of consumers requires wireless broadband access, and FON could help address the problem of implementing enough access points for seamless access by conscripting home-based wireless routers. FON already boasts more than 20,000 users since its launch four months ago, and expects to have 1 million hot spots by the end of the decade. FON believes unified global Wi-Fi could proliferate faster by enabling its community members to download its software, instead of by setting up Wi-Fi boxes at individual hot spots. The Cloud CEO George Polk wagers that FON will have to deal with the challenge of managing a network with equipment from multiple vendors, while Ozone's Rafi Haladjian says that "FON is not going to be an overnight sensation, but it will be part of a really, really powerful trend that is happening, which is taking existing infrastructure and pulling it together into new types of networks."
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A Research Library Based on the Historical Collections of the Internet Archive
D-Lib Magazine (02/06) Vol. 12, No. 2,Arms, William Y.; Aya, Selcuk; Dmitriev, Pavel

A Web library is being constructed at Cornell University for a time when a significant amount of information analysis and synthesis is computerized, and the effort seeks to organize the Internet Archive's approximately 10 billion Web pages and supply intuitive access tools for relatively inexperienced researchers. Social scientists and computer scientists drove the Cornell initiative, which is funded by a National Science Foundation grant, and the needs of these two research groups were determined through interviews. These sessions informed the division of the library project's software tools into two categories: Tools for building indexes and extracting data subsets that focus on the collection as a whole, and analysis tools that work on comparably small subsets. The Web library's draft usage principles dictate that the content of the Web pages and the identifying metadata must remain unchanged; the act of posting information on the Web includes an implied license to use it for archiving, academic research, and other limited purposes; the library's creation raises no privacy issues per se, but research involving data mining that identifies individuals must take privacy into account; and all users must be authenticated and limited to non-commercial, academic research. The architecture of the researcher usage methodology is based on the anticipation of basic access services and subset extraction services, which assume that the user employs a computer program to interact with the collections. Key components of the Web library include a petabyte data store with 2 GB multi-processor computers running Microsoft Windows Server 2003, and a 100 Mbps connection between the Internet Archive and Internet2. The library's data storage element consists of a relational database that stores metadata about every Web page, a Page Store that supplies a single copy of every unique page, and a robotic tape archive.
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Middleware Challenges and Approaches for Wireless Sensor Networks
IEEE Distributed Systems Online (03/06) Vol. 7, No. 3,Hadim, Salem; Mohamed, Nader

The design and deployment challenges of wireless sensor network (WSN) technologies could be met in a unique way through the use of a middleware layer, write Salem Hadim and Nader Mohamed at the Stevens Institute of Technology. Middleware efforts should provide mechanisms for limited power and resource management; scalability, mobility, and dynamic network topology; dynamic network configuration; heterogeneity; real-world integration; in-network aggregation of data from diverse sources; maintenance and adjustment of quality of service (QoS); and the incorporation of security into the initial software design phases, facilitating requirements such as confidentiality, authentication, integrity, freshness, and availability. Issues raised by programming sensor networks usually fall into the classes of programming support and programming abstractions. The former class consists of the virtual machine based, modular programming based, database based, application driven, and message-oriented middleware subclasses. The latter class boasts the two main subclasses of global behavior and local nodal behavior. Hadim and Mohamed define a framework for assessing middleware according to heterogeneity, scalability, power awareness, mobility, ease of use, and openness. Ease of use is defined by the middleware's abstraction level, while openness refers to how easy it is extend and tweak the system as functional needs shift. Fully meeting WSN challenges with middleware is a topic to be discussed, with a focus on such goals as fulfilling QoS needs while supplying a high-level abstraction that tackles sensor node heterogeneity, and addressing various sensor network application challenges while developing a simple and expressive programming interface.
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