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Communications of the ACM

On Site: The Esprit Atlas Project


Two European research technology development (RTD) managers of IT companies have been brainstorming for half a day. Lots of food has been consumed, exhausted secretaries and junior project managers of the two teams are praying for the meeting to end. The two senior execs have not joined efforts for the new product idea that initially seemed so exciting in previous communications they had via email. On the other hand, they do not wish to leave the meeting without making a decision. Time passes, and at one point, a new junior staffer tosses out an idea: Why not make a European project out of it? The idea was accepted with relief by all—especially the two RTD managers—and after almost a year, a two-and-a-half-year-long project was launched, with the goal of potential commercial marketability. End of story.

This scenario is only the begining of how the European community Espirit project, ATLAS, was started, and perhaps gives a vague view of one side of a system in which both authors firmly believe in—the EC's support of innovative and (technology as well as market) risk-averse corporate research and development activities. Here, then, we elaborate on ATLAS.

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About the Project

ATLAS aims to accelerate the adoption of push technology which, despite some setbacks, remains a very important element in the development and use of the Web.

Internet technology in general and push technology in particular are areas in which European technology lags considerably behind that of North America. However, our companies have identified a leading European product in this domain and plan to exploit it, using the support mechanisms of Esprit.

The project consortium consists of four partners, two of which are Users (Unisoft in Greece, and IDI- Eikon in Spain). These two partners aim to increase their ability to use the most innovative software, thus significantly enhancing their business performance. CSK Software of Ireland acts as the Provider, whose aim is to increase its ability to convert the promising application of its Slingshot (www.slingshot.net), real-time push technology product into wide adoption and marketplace success. The fourth partner, Prutech Innovation Services, also of Ireland, acts as the Enabler, whose role is to close the technology transfer loop between the Provider and the Users by providing necessary technical and business support services.

Slingshot is already well known in the European financial services sector, for which it was designed. But Slingshot's unique capabilities also are ideal for use in many other sectors. The primary objective of the ATLAS project is to initiate the extension of Slingshot's use into other parts of the wider Internet/Extranet/Intranet world. In this respect, we use Slingshot as the basis for carrying out four pilot demonstrations, two in Greece and two in Spain. Each of these demonstrators (or Slingshot applications) is a miniature project. At the end of the overall project, these practical business applications will serve as models for future push technology (and especially Slingshot) applications by new users. The four models cover a wide spectrum of applications where there is a need for real-time immediacy and communicating information.

Extending Slingshot into broader use requires great effort in a wide range of fields, for which CSK's considerable financial software experience is not optimized. Furthermore, CSK's own priority is to defend its hard-earned lead within the financial services data world. By bringing in the Users (Unisoft and IDI-Eikon), along with the supportive Prutech as Enabler, a true European cooperative effort is achieved to expand Slingshot's use. It is hoped that the example provided by the model applications of ATLAS will result in even wider Slingshot use through emulation by others.

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Pilot Applications

The first Greek pilot application, called "Enterprise Info Supply Chains," is directed to inter-enterprise usage (networks of suppliers and providers, clusters of contracting companies, plug-in enterprises, and so forth). This application is designed to enable the exchange of business data and information in terms of exploiting Slingshot's real-time push technology and by forming seamless information supply chains. This application leverages Unisoft's existing position as a main business software supplier in Greece and enables its entry in the domain of Internet-based, real-time business information systems, in which each company provides access to a dynamically definable view of its own business information system. The second Greek pilot application concerns publication of structured and non-structured information in the context of adaptive (demand-specific) information supply services to businesses.

The first Spanish pilot application entails an airline crew rostering information system to be developed under an agreement between IDI-Eikon and a leading European airline in which published information can be easily accessible by aircrews, at home or worldwide. The second Spanish pilot application, called "Real Time Weather," provides ubiquitous real-time weather data delivery under an agreement between IDI-Eikon and the Centro Meteorologico Territorial of Valencia. Fully up-to-date weather information and related data will be readily available to all relevant parties in terms of the Extranets of main civil institutions.

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EC Support

The European Commission recognized that European proactivity in Internet technologies was badly needed to keep up with the continuing growth of U.S. leadership, and in its first action plan, correctly identified that "Innovation requires, first and foremost, a state of mind combining creativity, entrepreneurship, willingness to take calculated risks, and an acceptance of social, geographical or professional mobility. Being innovative also demands an ability to anticipate needs, rigorous organization and a capacity for meeting deadlines and controlling costs."

European companies, especially small and medium-sized businesses with limited access to capital and human and technology resources, have been reluctant to express such an innovation mentality. Furthermore, the risks of investing in something that may result in a costly failure outweigh potential success. This aversion to risk is probably the greatest single weakness distinguishing the European approach to business from the more entrepreneurial U.S. approach. In this respect, the EC provides support to European companies to encourage the adoption of innovative technologies and facilitate the conduct of novel research activities.

The European Union's Esprit Program1 deals with research and technology development in the IT field. Esprit consists of a range of domains and themes, as well as a number of support tasks (mostly so-called "horizontal" actions). Competition for support under Esprit is intense and Euro-wide, with typically only one proposal in six being supported.

One rather specialized area within Esprit is "Task 1.33: Leveraging Actions" and it is within this task that the ATLAS project fits. Leveraging actions differ from normal R&D projects in that they address issues closer to the commercial marketplace. Their defined aim is to support European products and services that are the outcome of earlier R&D projects and whose commercialization could greatly benefit from a further impetus toward the market. Esprit expects this impetus to be achieved by cooperative work on a European-wide level.

Alternatively, Esprit's leveraging action could support hands-on adoption of the product/service or provide support for any work that helps promote wider adoption than would otherwise occur.

Figure 1 portrays Slingshot within the ATLAS Leveraging Action Project, showing the link of the project partners to the main actions that bind them.

ATLAS is identified as a technology transfer measure in the 1997 Work Program of the Esprit Information Technologies Program, in Domain 1: Software Technologies. Esprit's Task 1.33 for leveraging actions is concerned with "transferring innovative technology with a high potential, but which is still insufficiently deployed; it addresses the early adopters and initial users of the early majority who are ready to adopt innovative technology. It also addresses providers of such innovative technologies who are now ready to access wider markets."

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New Opportunities

The target marketplace for ATLAS is the high-speed micro-information dissemination market, such as those markets in which fragments of data and/or values change rapidly. Slingshot is especially suited to markets characterized by significant amounts of highly variable micro elements, such as financial data (Slingshot's native base), measurement and control, gambling, sport, and so on. Furthermore, interest is expected from Web-based information brokerage services, especially those with spreadsheet-type data and/or real-time data applications such as auctions and bidding.

Another target consists of owners and developers of intra- and inter-enterprise information supply chains, especially where indexes or similar data elements are critical. Finally, the ATLAS target markets include medium- to large-sized enterprises and public sector authorities (such as libraries), that provide enterprise-wide data access and reporting services and (traditional) financial market data vendors.

More specifically, the industrial context in which the ATLAS project takes place is that of the global Internet, which in the last few years has developed a huge commercial and business potential. Push technology, and especially real-time data delivery using push applications, has emerged as a new growth area, providing significant opportunities for European companies.

Usage of inter-organizational information management systems based on Intranet technology will also grow because of the need to integrate real-time market data and information arriving from disparate organizations or individuals into a unique IT-enabled process, independent of formal boundaries. In 1996, Unisoft collaborated with Prutech on the definition of a technical framework for adaptive data and information supply services using the establishment of information supply chains (see Figure 2) [1].

We have managed to preliminarily demonstrate how manufacturing enterprises can make the transition toward new ways of working by providing interoperability between various company legacy applications and IT infrastructures within a distributed (Internet/Intranet) environment. Further demonstration of the applicability, the utility, and the cost-efficiencies borne by inter- and intra-enterprise information supply chains will be undertaken within the context of the EC's 5th Framework Program, and more specifically, within the Information Society Technologies (IST) Program.

The information supply chains concept builds on the paradigm of the "conventional" supply chain, usually denoted in the world of manufacturing. It provides a scaleable working environment encompassing all tasks of data/information management.

Our companies' work in this field addresses the needs of (mainly manufacturing) enterprises to reduce information processing time, improve added and residual value of information, and reduce processing and distribution costs and lead times.

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Conclusion

ATLAS provides a framework within which European organizations can ally themselves with the developer to extend the range of market options. This cooperative effort provides extra resources, applications, and geographical reach to benefit all project partners. Furthermore, the concept of information supply chains provides a new information paradigm and also forms a basis in which one of the ATLAS pilot demonstrations will operate.

Notwithstanding the risks posed by competing technologies and by the maneuverings of the major vendors in unrelated IT fields, there remains a tremendous opportunity for all of the ATLAS partners and for the EC.

An understanding of the implications of real-time push technology thus gained will be applicable to any appropriate delivery mechanism—in much the same way as an understanding of C/C++ facilitates the development of applications in Java or CORBA.

As technology becomes easier to implement, and as development tools become more powerful, the consortium will gain tremendous insights into the competitive advantages that will be gained through the faster delivery of better information.

It is this understanding, which can only be gained by being involved as an "early adopter" of emerging technology, that creates the competitive advantage that European businesses require.

Moreover, the promise of delivering the best quality information in the shortest possible time to any location at any time, has far-reaching consequences concerning the way we interact with information.

We will see immediacy applications not only driving business but also permeating many aspects of home and family life. Those organizations that understand both the technology and its useful applications are uniquely positioned to take a leading role in the formation of the information society.

And that is surely the aim of ATLAS—to leverage the underlying technology of Slingshot so as to provide the consortium with an understanding of the business applicability of real-time push and to position European businesses as experts in the implementation of viable immediacy solutions.

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References

1. Walsh, P. and Koumpis, A. Introducing the concept of information supply chains: The buddy project. J. Log. Info. Manag. 11, 2 (1998).

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Authors

Patrick Walsh (patrickw@iee.org) is managing director of Prutech Innovation Services, Ireland.

Damantios Koumpis (akoumpis@the.unisoft.gr.) works in Unisoft S.A., Northern Greece.

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Footnotes

1Esprit, a 4th Framework Program entity, will be replaced by the Information and Communications Technologies Program (ICT), the newly commencing 5th Frame-work Program.

Work reported here is carried out in the context of the Esprit Project 29524 ATLAS, "A Push Technology Leveraging Action for 'Slingshot'." ATLAS, which began in December 1998, is wholly funded by the European Community Esprit Programme, operated by DGXIII, of the European Commission. The authors' work for Information Supply Chains was partially funded by the fnof.gifSME Award Project 26063 (BUDDY) "Building Information Supply Chains with a High Degree of Adaptivity," of the same Program.

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Figures

F1Figure 1. Focus of leveraging actions from ATLAS partner's perspectives.

F2Figure 2. Communication sharing and provision of information across an information supply chain.

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©1999 ACM  0002-0782/99/1200  $5.00

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