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High Performance Computing
for Environmental Management:
Monitoring, Simulation, Decision Support

Presented at the IST'98 workshop: IST Applications and Services for Environmental Management in European Cities and Regions, Austria Center Vienna, December 2, 1998.

Abstract

Based on the experience from a TAP project (ECOSIM) and two Esprit projects (HITERM, SIMTRAP), strategies for products and their introduction into the market are discussed. The role of the information technologies used, their potential and the related constraints are analysed from a company perspective.

 

An Overview of the three Projects

The three projects ECOSIM, HITERM, and SIMTRAP all address aspects of environmental management, the interactions between technology and its impact on the human living conditions. Within their technological and urban focus, the projects address:

ECOSIM:   http://www.ess.co.at/ECOSIM
urban environmental management, integrating on-line monitoring with simulation modeling for both strategic planning and operational management questions; the environmental domains include air quality including photochemical smog (ozone), coastal water quality, and groundwater quality. ECOSIM has validation sites in Berlin, Germany; Athens, Greece; and Gdansk, Poland.

HITERM:   http://www.ess.co.at/HITERM
technological risk management, primarily related to chemical industry and the transportation of hazardous substances; HITERM involves validation sites in Italy, Portugal, and Switzerland.

SIMTRAP:   http://www.ess.co.at/SIMTRAP
transportation and air quality, linking dynamic traffic simulation models with 3D, dynamic photochemical air quality models. SIMTRAP validation sites are in Milano, Italy; Vienna, Austria; and Maastricht, the Netherlands.

The Technological Framework

All three examples address tough problems: they are complex; dynamic, and involve spatially distributed 3D phenomena and models. They also involve problems of communicating difficult technical concepts and data to a largely non-technical audience, and of assisting non-technical users with complex analytical tools.

Despite the different application domains, different simulation models, and quite different user group and their specific requirements, the three system share some common technological framework and architecture. These elements include:

  • A flexible client-server implementation for distributed and decentralized use of information resources.
  • Communication architecture based on the http protocol which is used to integrate real-time data acquisition from monitoring sites, as well as optional high-performance computing resources such as supercomputers or workstation clusters; primary consideration here is the scalability of applications over a wide range of performance requirements.
  • Multi-media user interface design to support an intuitive understanding of results.
  • Integration of GIS with data bases, monitoring results, and spatially explicit simulation modeling.
  • Embedded rule-based expert systems for logical modeling and user support.

All these features are designed to address difficult analytical problems, and at the same time provide a convenient and easy to use intuitive user interface.

Market Strategies

The market for the environmental management and decision support systems described above includes both public institutions (such as larger cities subject to the Air Quality Framework Directive (96/62/EC) or the competent authorities of the Seveso Directive (96/82/EC), environmental consultants, and industry, in particular hazardous installations or the waste management and transportation sector.

The exploitation of the project results involves several steps: first, a marketable product version of the project results has to be developed. This requires additional investment, but is a necessary condition for marketing. These developments include:

  • quality assurance, converting research prototype software into a commercial product;
  • professional documentation, development of user support material;
  • national adaptations for target markets;
  • porting to different hardware/software environments.

In all three projects there is also the problem to adapt a high-tech product to a low-tech market. Since, however, the high-tech elements constitute the main innovation and the intrinsic value of the product this must be based on a flexible strategy of scalable implementation and a modular system with optional add-on components.

Scalability here refers to several related domains: systems must be available in a modular structure, with a low-cost entry level set of tools, that can be gradually expanded with optional components, e.g., starting with simple screening level models and moving (eventually) to full-featured 3D dynamic codes.

The same applies for hardware: offering low-cost entry level hardware configurations with smooth upgrade pathes for increasing computational performance that preserve customer investments is essential: this can be achieve through the use of cluster computing, where additional CPUs and thus computational resources can be integrated easily.

And finally, a low-cost entry level must also be available in terms of data requirements. In many situations, data availability is the most expensive constraint on the efficient use of information technology based solutions. Clearly, these three aspects of scalability are tightly related.

In parallel to the final product development, first marketing efforts are being based on direct contacts with the existing customer base, starting with broad mailing campaigns based on the prototype; presentations at conferences and trade fairs; publications in the technical and professional literature.

The product, in all three cases, bundles the software and related consultancy. This includes data acquisition and processing, installation, and training for the systems. As a special element of related services, the client-server implementation also supports the possibility of outsourcing of the more demanding computational tasks. In particular where high-performance computing resources are required the possibility to offer these as a service, on a pay as you go basis, seems to be an attractive option for public institutions where investment in non-standard hardware or personnel for computer support are more difficult to include in shrinking budgets than external services.


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