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VisTrails Overview

Recently, workflows have been emerging as a paradigm for representing and managing complex computations. Workflows can capture complex analyses processes at various levels of detail and provide the provenance information necessary for reproducibility, result publication and result sharing among collaborators. Because of the formalism they provide and the automation they support, workflows have the potential to accelerate and transform the information analysis process. Workflows are rapidly replacing primitive shell scripts as evidenced by the release of Apple’s Mac OS X Automator, Microsoft Windows Workflow Foundation, and the SGI Scientific Workflow Solution.

VisTrails is a new scientific workflow management system developed at the University of Utah that provides support for data exploration and visualization. Whereas workflows have been traditionally used to automate repetitive tasks, for applications that are exploratory in nature, very little is repeated---change is the norm. As an engineer or scientist generates and evaluates hypotheses about data under study, a series of different, albeit related, workflows are created while a workflow is adjusted in an interactive process. VisTrails was designed to manage these rapidly-evolving workflows. VisTrails streamlines the creation, execution and sharing of complex visualizations, data mining or other large-scale data analysis applications. By automatically managing the data, metadata, and the data exploration process, VisTrails allows users to focus on the task at hand and relieves them from tedious and time-consuming tasks involved in organizing the vast volumes of data they manipulate. VisTrails provides infrastructure that can be combined with and enhance existing visualization and workflow systems.

Although VisTrails was originally built to address the needs of exploratory scientific applications, the infrastructure it provides is very general. This became clear as the system was demoed to people from different domains, both from industry and academia. VisTrails has the potential to reduce the time to insight in virtually any exploratory task.


This work has been partially supported by the National Science Foundation under grants IIS-0513692, CCF-0401498, CNS-0541560, OISE-0405402, OCE-0424602, CNS-0524096, IIS-0534628, the Department of Energy under the SciDAC program (SDM and VACET), IBM Faculty Awards (2005 and 2006) and a University of Utah Seed Grant.