Gephi initiator interview: how “Semiotics matter”

Today I have the honnor to interview a special member of Gephi Team: Mathieu Jacomy.

Mathieu is an engineer, a founder of the WebAtlas NGO, teacher in Sciences Po Paris, and leads R&D in the TIC Migrations program in the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme and Telecom ParisTech school.
He is the main developer of the “Navicrawler” software. He also created the first Gephi prototype.


Sebastien Heymann: Hi Mathieu Jacomy, you are the creator of Graphiltre, the first Gephi prototype that you developed in 2006. What was the purpose of making a yet-another-graph-software?
Mathieu Jacomy: Hi ! I’m glad to answer your questions, and I hope our readers will be pleased to know more about Gephi.

At this time I was analyzing a lot of graphs and I wasn’t satisfied by the existing free tools. That’s why I started to build my own tools.

I had no money to use professional tools, and I needed to understand precisely what the software was doing : the open source, free softwares perfectly fit these constrains.
I was using the amazing software Guess proposed by Eytan Adar, that himself built for his own needs. I was doing quite the same thing as him, and I couldn’t start to explore graphs without this tool.
But I wasn’t satisfied because the software didn’t allow so much manipulations. I couldn’t look at the substructures as easily as I wanted, and it was difficult to make nice cartographies.
I was dreaming of a “graph-dedicated Photoshop“, a visualization-oriented software rather than a script-oriented tool.

A good way to figure out what I mean is to look at the spatialization process. In famous softwares such as Pajek or Guess, you have algorithms called “layout”, “force-vectors” or “energy model”. These algorithms give its shape to the graph, and it is probably the most critical part of the process to build a clear visualization. Because the substructures or “patterns” that one may see in the image strongly depend on the algorithm and the settings chosen. But in the same time, most of users also want to quickly look at the global shape of the graph, and may not be aware that it’s important to search for the best algorithm to use depending on the time you have, the quality you want, the size of the graph, its degree distribution, the substructure that you expect to recognize… I was careful with these algorithms but even if I understood their principles and specificities, I couldn’t figure out how they were transforming the graph, and I couldn’t evaluate their differences.

Why? Because in these softwares you can’t :
– Manipulate the graph while the algorithm is running
– Modify the settings while the algorithm is running
– And sometimes, you can’t event see the graph while the algorithm is running
How can you just understand what’s happening there? Of course I started to work on a software that allowed this. But the same kind of problems appears again in other parts of the process, like filtering, image exporting… Pajek is clearly built in a mathematical perspective. Guess is more user-friendly, but not enough. I didn’t want a tool for mathematics experts, but a tool for people that actually have to explore and understand graphs. A professional tool for a job that didn’t exist at this time.

This was the starting point of “Graphiltre“. Building a graph exploration system so that you can understand what you are doing by looking at what happens on the screen, and do anything (including filtering) without typing a single script line.

Continue reading →

Performance and scalability

With this article and some following I’ll focus on the application design and explain technical points I think relevant to understand our approach.

Today’s subject is performance and scalability in the visualization. Although other modules need high-quality performances, the visualization of thousands nodes and edges remains the major challenge. For a visualization-centered software like Gephi it is a key feature we attach great important.

What you can find in other network visualization software is either a poor visualization module or a stunning aspect but not efficient. For instance Pajek has a very efficient core and you can achieve a lot with it but problems starts when you want to visualize your network. With GUESS you are able to produce nice maps but the render engine starts suffering seriously over 2000 nodes. Gephi tries to combine an efficient render engine with looking good results.

In 2007 when we started designing the current version of Gephi we had in mind we want to create a new generation of network visualization software and hence we made some choices I will try to explain here.

Use multi-core
Already in 2007 and even more now multi-core processors impose new rules in software development. It brings appealing features but also some risks. However technology starts to be mature in this, all current Top 10 video games has been thought multi-thread from the beginning. Multi-core brings performance but does it bring scalability as well? I would say YES for Gephi because no matter how many processor you have, what can be parallelized will be parallelized. Graphics card are not able to parallelize yet but we count this would be the case in the future.

You may notice we got some inspiration from video games development. When using the graphic card features, Gephi’s render engine let the processor free for other computing and allows using GPU acceleration to speed up rendering. Apart allowing 3D graphs, many drawings are speed up by the GPU in Gephi. I would say the only problem is compatibility, due to the high number of different graphic cards on the market.

The visualization package architecture is a compromise between flexibility and performances. In 3D engine design it is quite impossible to have both in the same time. Hence our engine has flexibility where it doesn’t harm efficiency.

These choices allow good performance for visualizing, and I would say it is only the beginning. Currently, up to 50,000 nodes can be visualized and even more but this depends on edges number and how your graph is spatialized. Indeed we use techniques to avoid computing of parts of the graphs out of the screen:

Octree cubes partition Octree cubes on a 3D graph

The graph is cut in fixed volumes in a structure called Octree. It is easy for the render engine to determine which cubes are hidden and which are visible. Only 3D objects in visible cubes are computed. As a consequence performances don’t depend on how much nodes you have in your network but how many you are currently visualizing. So even with huge graphs, zooming in and exploring parts of it remains fast.

Besides the current 3D engine, which is intended to work on all configurations a new one will be developed in 2009. Using the last features of graphic card, networks size limit around 200,000 nodes may be reached.