UrbanTwin – Seeing double for sustainability

Twins are a fascinating phenomenon: observing how identical twins, even those separated at birth, can resemble each other in appearance, character, ability, and personal taste is astounding. It demonstrates the power of DNA, the smallest of building blocks, in creating surprisingly predictable results.

Now, UrbanTwin, a collaboration of Swiss research institutions within the ETH Domain, led by EPFL through laboratories of four different schools (STI, ENAC, IC, and SB) and four centers, plans to make identical twins of another kind, using neural networks instead of DNA to create a double of a Swiss town. Aigle has been chosen due to its size and because it has an extensive range of water sources and includes very detailed energy monitoring infrastructure previously developed by the Energy Center of EPFL. Lausanne is also a potential partner

One of ten nationally funded Joint Initiatives of the ETH Board addressing the strategic areas of energy, climate, and environmental sustainability, Urban Twin aims to develop and validate a holistic tool to support decision-makers in achieving environmental goals, such as the Energy Strategy 2050 and the vision of climate-adaptive “sponge cities”. The tool will be based on a detailed model of critical urban infrastructure, such as energy, water, buildings, and mobility, accurately simulating the evolution of these interlinked infrastructures under various climate scenarios and assessing the effectiveness of climate-change-related actions.

“Urban areas are responsible for 75% of greenhouse gas emissions while rising temperatures significantly impact their liveability. They represent a natural integrator of several systems, including energy, water, buildings, and transport. So, they represent the ideal setting for implementing a coordinated, multi-sectoral response to climate changes leveraging digitalization as a systemic approach.” explains David Atienza, Scientific Director of the EPFL’s EcoCloud Center for sustainable cloud computing and Head of EPFL’s Embedded Systems Laboratory (ESL). David Atienza and François Marechal are the coordinators of UrbanTwin.

“In UrbanTwin, we want to collect information from multiple sources by using new edge artificial intelligence (AI) platforms and integrate them using cloud computing technologies on a detailed model of critical urban infrastructures, such as energy, water (both clean and waste), buildings, and mobility and their inter-dependencies,” continues Atienza.

“As a cutting-edge example of what digitalization and AI can offer, this tool will be able to consider underlying socio-economic and environmental factors, while assessing the effectiveness of climate-change-related actions beforehand,” adds Atienza. “The goal is to develop a technology that is open and can be applied to other urban areas in any region of Switzerland”.

Also, it was key to have a flexible and realistic urban environment, such as Aigle, to use as case study. “By making reference to the Aigle demonstrator, we will develop an advanced modelling and control framework for the day-ahead and intraday control of urban/rural multi-energy systems. The framework will be capable of integrating the physical constraints of the electrical, mobility, heating/cooling, and water systems, along with the representation of the stochastic nature of the available resources. Based on this framework, a planning tool for integrated energy systems that considers their daily operation will be developed. The aim is to produce planning decisions inherently satisfying daily and intra-day operational needs,” explains Mario Paolone, Head of EPFL’s Distributed Electrical Systems Laboratory (DESL).

Technology transfer is a constantly recurring theme, another is inter-institutional collaboration. Five different institutions are taking part: EPFL, ETHZ, WSL (Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research), EMPA (Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology), and EAWAG (Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology).

Inter-institutional research cooperation is essential in Urban Twin by having researchers co-directed between multiple laboratories at different institutions. As an example, the water monitoring system will include selecting the best source of freshwater supplies and measuring its quality, as well as modelling the disposal of wastewater. It will include AI technologies that will do detective work as well, with a system that will track sources of pollution as quickly as possible and send alarms with the origin located and reported. To this end, Giulio Masinelli, who is a doctoral student jointly co-supervised by EMPA and EPFL, will work on developing new smart multi-parametric sensing systems to create the digital twin. He has a good appreciation of this project as he is working on a similar approach for advanced manufacturing. “We can generate data by installing sensors on sinks,” explains Masinelli,” measuring water quality around the city, the pH level, the salt concentration and other metrics. We will use machine learning to collect observations, and then make predictions – with physical constraints. These constraints are what make a simulation powerful because it becomes a flexible model with lots of parameters.”

“Masses of work goes into applying partial differential equations to the data so that the system can be generalised without a drop in quality coming from physical constraints and unfamiliar data. The result is a neural network that can generate results in a couple of milliseconds: the resolution of the partial differential equations. Then you can fine-tune the parameters so that they will work with all data. You must not stay too close to one dataset if you want good predictions,” he continued.

UrbanTwin represents a welcome opportunity for these researchers to collaborate with a range of different teams at a difficult time for Swiss scientists. Participation in Horizon Europe was lost to Swiss researchers since the country broke off negociations with the EU in 2021, making national funding the only current option. Atienza is hopeful that UrbanTwin can repay the investment of the Swiss government, “if we can improve the way city administrators deal with their resources and raise levels of efficiency it would be a really big step.”

Currently, AI and cloud computing are used in an ever-increasing number of ways in research, as exemplified by the EcoCloud center of EPFL. Atienza and Marechal are convinced that “Sustainable digital twin technologies will be implemented through UrbanTwin, which will provide a great tool to complement decision-makers in their work, searching through vast stores of data to find anomalies, or recommendations, that would take a person too long to find. UrbanTwin will be an AI system, and a holistic one: we expect unexpected results.”

Unexpected results should not come as a big surprise here – it’s a twin thing.

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Silicon device dependability – talk by visiting professor Sani Nassif

Wednesday, 23rd November, 2022

EcoCloud Visiting Professor Sani Nassif gave a talk in the BC Building at EPFL to a captivated audience.

The talk examines trends in Silicon device dependability as scaling continues, and proposes some areas of cross-domain research that are needed to keep the information infrastructure functioning in the future.

Prof. Babak Falsafi, Visiting Professor Sani Nassif, Prof. Giovanni de Micheli and Prof. David Atienza
Dr. Nassif explained that Vincent Van Gogh would have made an excellent system designer.
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Gabriele Manoli joins EcoCloud

Gabriele Manoli studies water supplies, energy exchange and the carbon cycle in urban and suburban systems. His interdisciplinary approach unites environmental technology, infrastructure and urban planning. He is currently investigating the worldwide trend towards urban densification and the effects of altering the urban climate (e.g. through greening measures).

In collaboration with EcoCloud Prof. Manoli will be investigating urban structure and dynamics, in particular modelling the evolution urban systems in terms of their development through time and space.

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The coolest microchips around: designer swimwear by POWERLab

Having come through a heatwave it is easy to forget that humans are not the only ones that need to shelter from oppressive heat. Animals suffer too, and huge mechanical infrastructures like railways, even major runways. But what about computers?

From the beginning, data centers have faced problems with cooling. In the old days, it was known that Google had a fantastic set-up in their data centers where super computers would be laid out in open rows, in a refrigerated environment. Technicians in California could go and replace velcro-mounted components, while enjoying the cool air for a few refreshing minutes. The real benefit was that the rooms would be kept at a low temperature, to lighten the load on each server’s individual cooling system. Nowadays, however, this would be regarded as extraordinarily inefficient: why waste energy refrigerating an entire room, when it is only the PCs that have to be kept cool?

Prof. Elison Matioli from POWERlab has taken this question a step further. Why should the entire PC be cooled down by having air blown at it, when each individual chip could have its own liquid-cooled system?

As data center demand goes up, so does the cost of cooling

Unless you are unusually well-versed in data center technology, it is unlikely you will be aware of the full extent to which you make use of data centers. If you use Gmail or it is likely that every email you send or receive is stored in a center in the USA; if you have your photos backed up on Apple iCloud or Google Photos, they will be stored in several of the many data centers these companies run all over the world. As more and more people increasingly make use of the Internet-of-Things, from smart cars to smart doorbells to fitness monitors, our data center usage is constantly growing.

At EPFL’s EcoCloud Center we have many professors working on ways to decrease the energy consumption of data centers, even as demand grows and global temperatures increase. At the smallest level, Prof. Moser and Prof. Psaltis have been researching light propagation in optical fibers, and using it to perform practical computational tasks, with much lower energy consumption than traditional digital techniques. At the city-wide level, Prof. Paolone has been building smart grids that turn static power networks into self-regulating, highly-efficient intelligent systems.

Prof. Elison Matioli is working in between these two extremes, at the level of computer components. “Our vision is  to contribute to the development of an integrated chip – a single unit for powered electronics where you have loads of devices integrated – smaller and more energy-efficient than anything that can be achieved currently.”

Microchips continue to get smaller in size, so scientists around the globe are seeking out alternatives to silicon, as the natural limits of this tried and tested material impose themselves. Prof. Matioli has identified the best alternative, but there is an inevitable problem:

“Using Gallium Nitride allows us build electronic devices like power units, memory chips or graphic cards, much smaller than can be achieved with silicon. We can deliver better performances in energy conversion with a much smaller volume but, as a consequence of this, we are generating greater amounts of heat over a smaller surface area.

“It is vital that components do not overheat, nor cause neighbouring devices to overheat.”

Cooling revolutionary chip sets like the above became a main focus of Prof. Matioli’s team, and led to some radical solutions. In turn, these solutions opened new possibilities for cooling all kinds of chip sets, including data center infrastructure.

Walking through the lab, it comes across like science fiction.

Just as an astronaut uses a space suit with built-in liquid-cooling, so these microchips are each housed in a liquid-cooled membrane. Cooling with air in the traditional way is fine, but liquid conducts heat faster than air, so the cooling is much more efficient. In the devices being pioneered by POWERlab, microchannels of varying diameter provide a cooling system that is tailored to the needs of each chip, as part of a cooling network designed for the entire machine – the hot spots having been identified in advance. Crucially, it is only the hot spots themselves that are targeted – an ultra-efficient strategy.

Getting mechanical and electronics engineers to work together

This “co-designing” of the ultra-compact microchips and their cooling system makes the approach unique, and beats at the heart of spin-off Corintis SA, a start-up which has evolved out of POWERlab, and is currently recruting.

“Corintis is bringing a service to chip manufacturers, providing them with heat maps for their devices. Their experts can optimise microfluidic cooling while the customer is designing their microchips. They can then design the heat sink in a way that is made to measure for their chipset.”

Interdisciplinarity is a key feature to this work: “Very often the departments looking at thermal issues and electronic devices are in different buildings: mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. So you build a chip and then send it to another department to find a way to cool it down. But by this time you have already missed many opportunities!

“In our lab I brought mechanical engineers and electrical engineers to work together,” explains Prof. Matioli, “and that is what makes us different.”

In discussion with Remco van Erp, CEO of Corintis SA

The annual increase in computing power of general-purpose chips has been slowing down in recent years. Many of the biggest tech companies in the world are now designing their own application-specific chips to meet their future needs: Apple designs chips for their phones and laptops, Amazon designs chips for their data center, and Youtube even designs chips for video processing, there is a large amount of heterogeneity. The custom design of chip-sets can greatly benefit from tailor-made cooling solutions to improve energy efficiency and performance, especially where data centers are concerned. Increasingly, companies are coming to us looking for bette cooling solutions.

This is a very multidisciplinary problem, requiring expertise ranging all the way from mathematics to plumbing. At Corintis, we have computational and hardware experts working together to achieve our goals. The modelling aspect is very important, since we want to predict power and temperature distribution, and optimize the microfluidic cooling design, before a chip is even manufactured. It’s also a multi-scale problem: on the one hand, we are dealing with channels at the micrometre scale , on the other it is integrated into chips that are several centimetres big. This requires clever innovations in modelling and simulation.

We keep strong links with EPFL: our microfabrication experts are working in the clean rooms there, we have four interns from EPFL and other international institutions, and we are applying for research funding in collaboration with POWERLab.

Find out more:




Related publications:

Multichannel nanowire devices for efficient power conversion
Nature, 25 March 2021

Co-designing electronics with microfluidics for more sustainable cooling

Nature, 9 September 2020

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Researcher adds Microsoft Fellowship to Google Scholarship

EcoCloud partner Microsoft Research have announced the laureates of their PhD Fellowships, including Simla Harma for her work on Cloud Infrastructure.

Having won a Google Scolarship in 2021, Simla can lay claim to a unique achievement, in being funded by two of IT’s largest and most influential corporations.

Simla is from Turkey, and is working in the project ColTrain, as a member of Prof. Falsafi’s PARSA lab.

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EcoCloud Stands in Solidarity with Iranian Universities

We at the EPFL EcoCloud Center condemn the brutal crackdowns against people protesting the Iranian regime and the actions of its so-called morality police.

In particular we condemn the violent repression of students and academic staff at universities in Iran. These actions are in violation of basic human rights and pose a serious threat to academic freedom.

We stand in solidarity with the faculty, students, staff and victims, and call for an immediate end to these brutal acts of violence.

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UrbanTwin – a national joint initiative

The ETH Board has announced a joint initiative in the strategic areas of Energy, Climate and Environmental Sustainability and Engagement and Dialogue with Society:

UrbanTwin – A digital twin for urban infrastructure, assessing the effectiveness of climate-related policies and actions

Urban areas are responsible for 75% of greenhouse gas emissions, while rising temperatures significantly impact their liveability. They represent a natural integrator of several systems, including energy, water, buildings, and transport. As a matter of fact, they represent the ideal setting for implementing a coordinated, multi-sectoral response to climate changes leveraging digitalization as a systemic approach.

UrbanTwin aims to develop and validate a holistic tool to support decision-makers in achieving environmental goals in Switzerland, such as the Energy Strategy 2050 and the vision of climate-adaptive “sponge cities”. This tool will be based on a detailed model of critical urban infrastructures, such as energy, water (both clean and waste), buildings, and mobility, and their inter-dependencies while considering underlying socio-economic and environmental factors. It will accurately simulate the evolution of these coupled infrastructures under various climate scenarios and assess the effectiveness of climate-change-related actions beforehand.

The proposed tool will be applied to two specific case studies:

(a) the sustainable transition of municipalities considering proper local resources valorization and optimal infrastructure deployment, and
(b) the assessment of climate change-related policies’ effectiveness considering critical infrastructure resilience, supply security, and the transition pathway thereto.

The project brings together forward-looking research developed by partners from 5 different institutions of the ETH domain, namely EPFL, ETHZ, WSL, EMPA, and EAWAG, representing the engineering, environmental, and IT communities in a balanced way. The project will actively involve local stakeholders to ensure the successful implementation of the proposed interdisciplinary decision-making tool. Moreover, professional science outreach, communication, and scientific project management are assured through four EPFL centers, namely, the Center for Sustainable Cloud Computing (EcoCloud), the Energy Center, the Center for Climate Impact and Action (CLIMACT), and the Center for Intelligent Systems (CIS).

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EPFL takes another step towards carbon neutrality

Today EPFL inaugurated its new heating plant, which has the capacity to heat and cool the Lausanne campus solely by drawing water from Lake Geneva and recovering excess heat from a connected data center. The ceremony was attended by local political leaders including Vassilis Venizelos, who is a Vaud Canton councilor and the head of the Canton’s department of youth, the environment and security.

The plant – some three years in the making – marks a major step towards the School’s goal of becoming carbon neutral. EPFL began renovating the heating and cooling facilities at its Lausanne campus in 2019 after they had become obsolete.
“Our School has long been a pioneer in making efficient use of energy resources,” says Matthias Gäumann, EPFL’s Vice President for Operations. “We installed the first lake-water-fed cooling system in the late 1970s, and in 1986 we began heating parts of the Lausanne campus with lake water, too. Thanks to the plant inaugurated today, all of the campus’ heating and cooling needs will now be met through a combination of water pumped from Lake Geneva, heat exchangers, heat recovered from a data center and solar panels. All that corresponds to 54% of the campus’ total energy requirement.” 40% of the remaining energy comes from electricity and just 6% from natural gas; the campus uses no fuel oil.

Recovering excess heat
The new heating plant was built through a project with Bouygues. Its innovative design includes an integrated system bringing together different types of renewable energy. The sides and roof of the plant’s main building (located near a metro track) are covered entirely with solar panels, while a new pumping station makes it possible to draw water from Lake Geneva. This water – sourced more deeply than in the previous plant – is drawn at a constant temperature of 7°C before next-generation heat pumps raise it to 67°C through a thermodynamic process involving compression, condensation, expansion and evaporation. The end result is significantly better energy performance.
Another major advance is that the plant makes use of the excess heat generated by a data center built on top of it, through a system that was started up early this year. The server-rack doors in the center are designed to accommodate filtered industrial water cooled by lake water. The system is energy-efficient and technically quite bold due to the challenges involved in running water near electrical fittings. By using the heat recovered from cooling the servers to warm the rest of the Lausanne campus, the School can cut its power bill considerably, particularly when compared to the conventional approach of using refrigeration units to cool servers.

“A crucial step”
Looking further ahead, the plant could one day make use of a nearby composting facility that converts organic waste from neighboring parks and gardens. A digester for food waste from campus cafeterias could also be installed, eventually leading to small-scale local biogas production.
Last but not least, the new plant could also be used for research aims. EPFL’s EcoCloud research center is working with the School’s Energy Center on a project to reduce the data center’s carbon emissions. The project entails incorporating the solar panels on the heating plant along with a battery located on campus, and setting up a system for controlling the data center directly.
“Few people in the EPFL community have ever really wondered where the energy they use to heat buildings, light up classrooms and run experiments comes from,” says Gisou van der Goot, EPFL’s Vice President for Responsible Transformation. “But times are changing, and we need to showcase our School’s energy strategy as an example worth following. Especially in today’s circumstances, it’s reassuring to know that our main campus uses no fuel oil and almost no natural gas, and runs primarily on renewable energy thanks to our new heating plant. This plant marks a crucial step towards our long-term objectives.”

Key figures
54% of the Lausanne campus’ energy comes from the heating plant, which uses water from Lake Geneva to heat and cool the entire campus
6% comes from natural gas
40% comes from electricity
218 GWh expected energy use in 2022

Author: Mediacom

Source: EPFL

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Beating hackers at bug hunting with automated, far-reaching technology

On the 9th of December, 2021 the world of IT security abruptly went into a state of shock. An alarming message was spreading like wildfire:

    RCE 0-day exploit found in log4j   

For the uninitiated, there is a lot to unpack here. “RCE” stands for remote code execution: similar to when somebody takes control of your computer with TeamViewer to run programs of their choosing. In this context, however, control is exerted without the consent, or even the knowledge of the owner.

A zero day exploit is a major software vulnerability, previously unknown to the developer. They must act quickly to develop a patch because, by the time the developer learns about it, adversaries could already be exploiting the opening.

The log4j library allows Java software to log (report) certain conditions, and is widely used in Java software. A vulnerability in it could allow an adversary to execute arbitrary code in the context of the underlying software.

Put it all together and you get this: at the time the above headline was published, a system tool used by companies all over the world – in cloud servers, game servers and financial platforms – was already being exploited by hackers, allowing them to take control of servers and data centers.

News spread fast about the staggering vulnerability

93% of the world’s cloud services affected

According to the Wall Street Journal, “U.S. officials say hundreds of millions of devices are at risk, hackers could use the bug to steal data, install malware or take control.”

One estimate stated that the vulnerability affected 93% of enterprise cloud environments. At EPFL, all IT administrators were sent instructions to patch their server software immediately. Even Oracle Corporation, world leaders in information security, had to send out a distress call:

“Due to the severity of this vulnerability and the publication of exploit code on various sites, Oracle strongly recommends that customers apply the updates provided by [our] Security Alert as soon as possible.”

It is hard to gauge the full extent of the damage caused, but it is clear that these vulnerabilities have real-world impact: among confirmed victims of the log4j bug are the Belgian Ministry of Defence, the UK’s National Health Service and a range of financial trading platforms. So the question begs itself – what are corporations like Oracle doing about it?

As a matter of fact, Oracle had already been working against this kind of vulnerability long before the log4j zero day. The log4j library uses deserialization: a server receives structured data (a form of code and object relationships) for processing. If the checks during deserialization are insufficient, and allow the attacker leeway in how the data is interpreted, it often results in RCE. Identifying the vulnerabilities exposed during the deserialization process had long been a subject of interest to Oracle researchers by 2020, when they reached out to Prof. Mathias Payer of EPFL’s HexHive lab:

“We had already covered fuzzing and program analysis, and had worked on cloud security as part of EPFL’s EcoCloud Center,” explains Prof. Payer, “but we had not approached these deserialization bugs.  Then we got to work with Oracle Labs (part of Oracle Inc) who provided funding via a gift. François Gauthier and Kostyantyn Vorobyov, two Oracle researchers from Oracle Labs introduced us to the complex technical issues that they were facing. And then we worked together, and developed a platform for discovering deserialization vulnerabilities.

“People have been attempting to find and exploit vulnerabilities in deserialization code, including Oracle’s, for years: either intent on gaining some kind of direct advantage, or to earn money by submitting bug reports. Either way, these are dedicated, manual attacks. In these manual attacks, the analyst thoroughly analyzes the source code of the target and then painstakingly crafts the exploit. What we have developed is a mechanism that automates the process, and allows Oracle to get ahead of the attackers.

Eight moves ahead, like a chess grandmaster

“In addition to this, the bugs that we are finding can be much more complex than the ones that experts are finding manually. Most analysts are trained to search to a depth of two manipulations: an entry and a control vector. Our platform creates an abstract dependency graph for all available classes, and can do a fuzzy search to a depth of up to eight manipulations.”

The battle between IT security managers and attackers is one where the defenders hope to find bugs before the attackers do. However, Prof. Payer explains that security managers have one key advantage when it comes to using HexHive’s platform: “Although our tool is neutral, i.e., it can be used by both attackers and defenders, developers have full access to and understanding of their own code, which gives them a huge advantage over a hacker when it comes to interpreting the results. They therefore have a very good chance of finding weak points before the attacker.”

Negotiations are under way to set up internships for HexHive researchers at Oracle Corporation. “This will be good for Oracle because they will have people who actually developed some of the code on site, which will make it easier to integrate the platform into their pipeline. Another thing I appreciate is that our prototype will remain open source, and bug reports will be published.”

So long as information technology is around, the battle between security managers and hackers will rage on. Thanks to their collaboration with HexHive, however, Oracle will be able to keep one step ahead of the aggressor: faster, higher, stronger.

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