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Tracking tremors: quake analysts solve data management woes.


Until recently, easy access to the scores of seismic recordings registered internationally was unattainable.

According to Dr. Tim Ahern, program manager for Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS), efforts now underway will assist seismologists and geophysicists in better unerstanding the forces at work in the earth's crust that cause earthquakes. IRIS, a consortium of 64 American universities, uses a network of Sun Microsystems workstations to manage vast amounts of seismic data.

The consortium records the earth's tremors nonstop through a worldwide network that will eventually number more than 100 permanent seismic stations. Portable seismic recording systems, also based on workstations, are carried to remote sites when seismic activity occurs. After the data is collected, member scientists access it in minutes via the network. It is then used in a variety of research programs.

Too Much For 1 Man

"For the first time, the amount of seismic data we collect exceeds what a single researcher can handle easily," says Ahern. "The workstation network is particularly suited to solving the data management problem. It provides the connectivity tools and processing power to access and manipulate the seismographic data, freeing members to pursue research."

To study a particular earthquake, a scientist typically retrieves several hundred million samples from the IRIS archives in a matter of minutes. Previously, it took from two months to several years.

At IRIS' Data Management Center (DMS) in Austin, Texas, Ethernet links Sun-3 workstations to an IBM 4381 mainframe storing the seismic data at the University of Texas' Center for High Performance Computing, also based in Austin.

One of the workstations features two high-speed modems supporting dial-in access for IRIS members and dial-out links to seismic stations in other U.S. locations. For software, the DMS uses an in-house-developed data management package.

Out in the field, IRIS researchers rely on a custom-built "ruggedized field computer" to format and analyze data. Comprised of a Sun-3/180 CPU, a monitor and memory boards, the field computer is mounted in shipping cases equipped with shock mounts. IRIS installs the field computer at a university or motel near the experiment site, though in truly remote areas lacking a power source--such as Alaska or Greenland--a portable generator must accompany the device.

Running In 5 Minutes

"When we record seismic signals at sites of special interest, we send out one field computer for every 50 to 100 instruments," says Ahern. "That way, we're self-sufficient--relaying information to the field computer for on-site analysis is easy. We can ship it anywhere in the world and have it up and running five minutes after arrival."

This ruggedized field computer was first displayed in December 1988 at the American Geophysics Union convention in San Francisco. As the convention got underway, Soviet Armenia was rocked by one of the most devastating earthquakes in recent memory. To illustrate IRIS' telecommunications network, Ahern and his colleagues used the field computer to contact (via modem) IRIS recording stations in California and Massachusetts. Within 15 minutes, geophysicists gathered at the convention received digital data detailing the events in Armenia.

Under normal circumstances, an IRIS member scientist starts up the program by entering his name, user code and the mailing address of his own computer. Acting as a table of contents for the larger IRIS seismogram archives, the Data Management System workstation in Austin displays a list summarizing all the seismograms in the archive that have data for the earthquake in question.

The scientist then specifies a list of seismographic stations and time windows for the data he desires. He E-mails this request file to Austin, where a computer operator retrieves the appropriate seismograms from the IBM mainframe. Putting the seismograms on a disk, the operator forwards the data directly to the IRIS member scientist.
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Title Annotation:Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology consortium's Data Management Center employs network to manage vast amounts of seismic data
Publication:Communications News
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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