I'm at the XXVIth Congress of the International Astronomical Union in Prague (a wonderful place), the triennial astronomy extravaganza. While the press coverage is all about whether Pluto gets to stay a planet (it seems that it will, sort of), a lot of the conference content is about virtual observatories (VOs). (I gave an invited talk on "Grid Technology and Multidisciplinary Science," which looked at connections between Grid and the VO world.)
The astronomy community has pioneered "service-oriented science" techniques for some time: see the nice article by Gray and Szalay for the basics. While the fact that their data is fairly simple and of no commercial value simplifies life relative to some other disciplines, it is still remarkable what they have achieved. Basically, they are developing services that provide access to a growing number of digital sky surveys at different wavelengths. Users can then access these services to look for (say) objects that are visible in the infra red but not the optical (=brown dwarfs), to stack up multiple instances of the same sort of obect (e.g., quasars) to improve signal to noise ratios, etc., all without leaving their desks. Furthermore, someone who develops an interesting analysis technique can in turn publish that as a service.
There are by now over a dozen VO projects around the world, and dozens of sky surveys are online. These sky surveys currently total tens of terabytes (10^12 bytes) of data; the next generation of instruments will generate petabytes (10^15 bytes) of data. These developments are rapidly transforming astronomy. It has already led to new scientific discoveries.
What makes this all possible is a small set of relatively simple but very important conventions The International Virtual Observatory Alliance (IVOA), formed in June 2002, has played an important role in developing these.
We should all be studying how this community works, and working to replicate their successes elsewhere.