Software Companies Expand and Consolidate
Editor's Note ESRI's impressive end-to-end solutions are not addressed specifically in this article; a full article on ESRI's ArcGIS Image Server begins here.
The continuing embrace of open GIS data standards in 2007 helped mark the graduation of location-based technology into the consumer and business mainstream. Standards-based geospatial distribution represents a technological watershed for the industry, and an acknowledgement of the need for reliable data integration at a time when conflicting file formats threaten to guarantee anything but a civil handshake between GIS solutions and existing IT repositories.
During recent years, however, the functional virtues of interoperability have been coded into some of the industry's best known products. As a result, the era of GIS as a "back room" engine with a limited mandate in day-to-day operations is ending, and standardized specifications are pushing geographic data deeper into the enterprise-wide business management systems now commonly used by large private and public organizations.
This trend has resulted in a greater number of internal and customer-facing GIS applications across a variety of business lines. That result lends drama to the coming-of-age phase that geospatial providers are now experiencing, and motivates leaders like ESRI and Intergraph Corp. to make sure their flagship data editing products suit the needs of customers at the enterprise level. As the industry consolidates, upstart players seek to compete with the better established vendors of end-to-end solutions, while other firms jockey to fill specialty niches within the unfolding geospatial enterprise paradigm. High throughput requirements typical of geospatial data storage and delivery networks, along with existing technological gaps, signal opportunities for companies like Seattle-based LizardTech and Definiens Inc., a German firm with offices in Morristown, New Jersey.
The long-standing clarion call for interoperability has leveraged use of open data exchange interfaces in recent years enough so that spatially-enabled business processes now rarely operate in isolation. Sam Bacharach, executive director of outreach for the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), has noted that the benefits of standards-based integration extend not only to data, but also to the way applications speak to one another and to the simplified way they can be presented to users. More and more, these advantages are manifest in the reduced need for point-to-point adaptors or interfaces between programs, and in the features of service-oriented architecture, which permit whole clusters of applications in an enterprise to be "front-ended" to users in the form of a common interface.
Intergraph Corp. (Huntsville, Ala.) has acknowledged the need for integrated systems and data as a function of both product penetration and OGC advocacies. Its family of GeoMedia geospatial data editing products is tailored to be compatible with formats as varied as ESRI Shapefiles, Autodesk files, Bentley Systems files and Oracle Spatial files. With GeoMedia Professional, an employee using Microsoft Access or SQL Server in a corporate facilities department can just as easily retrieve data from a centralized spatial database as an employee who works with Oracle's relational database from within the firm's sales division. Data accessibility is enhanced by features that allow administrators to set up special enterprise libraries, and the application is capable of integrating multiple spatial data formats into a one-user view of the information with no translation required.
Interoperability gets another boost as a result of support for major vector and raster formats and OGC standards like Web Feature Service, the open interface that permits web users at disparate locations to make platform-independent data calls. GeoMedia is not unlike some other major enterprise products in that its recognition of OGC's Web Map Service allows for the use of standard web browsers to submit requests in the form of uniform resource locators, and its support for Geography Markup Language (GML) provides the XML grammar, as defined by the OGC, to express geographic features.
Technical accommodations like these don't guarantee that all data integration chores will be easy. The National Geographic Institute of Belgium and the Alabama Department of Revenue both use FME Desktop, a translator and converter marketed by Safe Software, to ensure that any of more than 200 GIS, CAD and raster formats can be accurately read into their GeoMedia-powered business enterprises. In Alabama, FME enabled the transfer of MicroStation and AutoCAD files into GeoMedia and the sharing of GeoMedia data in various formats, while performing quality checks during the translation process.
But the occasional need for a third party assist doesn't seem to be slowing Intergraph's momentum in the enterprise market. Case studies presented at its recent Users Conference in Las Vegas illustrated the use of the company's technology in the day-to-day operation of two utility systems. Spectra Energy, a Houston-based natural gas distributor operating in the Eastern United States and Western Canada, uses GeoMedia WebMap for enhanced decision support, geo-referenced ad hoc reporting, Department of Transportation compliance, and maintenance of data integrity. And in Marietta, Georgia, Cobb Electric Membership Corp. has folded Intergraph solutions together with its work management, materials, financials and customer information enterprise modules. Enhanced asset tracking, increased data accuracy and reduced risk of mapping workload backlog are among the benefits that Cobb administrators are reporting.
With larger customers like these jumping on the geospatial enterprise bandwagon, it's clear that one of the OGC's five strategic goals—"adoption of open, spatially enabled reference architecture in enterprise environments worldwide"—is being seen to fruition. The benefit of well-placed GIS at the enterprise level presumes the information can be exploited contextually and is able to cohabitate with business applications and input data on the same networked floor plan. The service oriented architecture model builds on the advantages of open standards by making way for configurations in which the various functions of an enterprise are chopped into distinct "service units" that can be mixed, matched, distributed and reused to create any number of business applications. Large organizations that structure their processes this way and use standards such as GML are in a position to benefit from the abstraction of rules and policies in ways that promote independence from specific vendors. Just as importantly, open standards can help extend the lifespan of expensive legacy system investments made in previous years.
ERDAS Inc. (Norcross, Ga., formerly Leica Geosystems Geospatial Imaging) is another player working to posture itself as a champion of newer data exchange paradigms. Although its reputation as a photogrammetric and optical systems vendor under the earlier Leica name was well grounded, managers in recent years have come to view the migration of GIS data into cross-departmental business environments as an opportunity to rebrand the firm as a provider of end-to-end functionality across the entire geospatial work-flow conundrum, leveraging the power of the flagship ERDAS brand.
According to President Bob Morris, simple market realities inspired the change in direction. "In our changing marketplace, companies able to effectively incorporate geospatial information to help solve their business problems will be the most successful," he says. "Geospatial Business Systems will deliver stronger sales, replacing a customer's traditional method of purchasing and attempting to integrate separate products from multiple software vendors."
With its purchase of IONIC Software last year, ERDAS gained a scaleable geospatial platform in the RedSpider suite of products (including RedSpider Enterprise), as well as internal ties to OGC's support for interoperable GeoWeb guidelines and the International Organization for Standardization's (ISO) support for metadata standards. ERDAS now has representatives sitting on a number of OGC/ISO committees, and on the OGC Board of Directors.
The IONIC deal was just one of three that the company negotiated to diversify its product portfolio. The purchase of Acquis Inc. gave it a foothold in multi-user topological editing, with support for mobile, web and rich client desktop environments. The acquisition of a third firm, ER Mapper, drew Image Web Server into the ERDAS product line. The latter deal also brought ownership of ER Mapper Professional to ERDAS, strengthening its presence in the remote sensing image processing arena. ER Mapper Professional is now co-marketed along with the existing three-tier suite of ERDAS IMAGINE tools.
Senior Vice President of Product Management and Marketing, Mladen Stojic explained that the company will adhere to a multi-phased development plan aimed at solidifying its presence in the enterprise market. Phase One commenced earlier this year with the release of ERDAS Image Manager, a tool that addresses the challenge of discovering, describing, cataloging and serving im-age data. See Figure 1.
Figure 1 ERDAS Image Manager chart shows compatibility with Oracle Spatial files, ESRI GeoDatabase files and others.
Phase Two will extend this same functionality into a more fully consolidated package consisting of three elements: the OGC/ISO-compliant enterprise application ERDAS Apollo, a geo-portal toolkit customers can use to develop custom Web applications, and an integrated Web client that will permit the completion of geospatial work-flows in a browser format. Full integration of vector topology in the company's core products, and improvements in the automation of support for on-demand geoprocessing, are among the goals targeted in Phase Three. Finally, ERDAS hopes to refine its geospatial platform by developing market-focused solutions that address specific needs identified by members of its partner network. Particular focus will be directed toward the resolution of issues in the utilities, natural resources, defense and oil/gas sectors.
Figure 2 ERDAS' digital earth called TITAN, showing a portion of New York City as a customized "My World," which is compatible with Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth. Top image shows switching to another user's "My World."
ERDAS emphasizes how geospatial information can increase in value as it evolves through the progressive stages of authoring, management, sharing and delivery. Last year's ERDAS TITAN network debut was something of a functional glamorization of the data sharing phase. TITAN is an online solution that permits the discovery, visualization and retrieval of geospatial data within a secure environment. Desktop and Internet applications, as well as three-dimensional virtual globes, may be used to display content interactively and collaboratively, and users are encouraged to create personal, permissions-controlled "MyWorld" spaces into which they can upload geospatial data for others to view. With this controlled structure, ERDAS is offering a data sharing environment that ensures the protection of digital ownership rights. See Figure 2.
ITT's ENVI updates bring new automated workflows and data integration options for ESRI's ArcGIS. ENVI 4.4 delivers new functionality that streamlines image analysis workflow (such as working with vector layers, pan sharpening images and performing change detection) and provides advanced spectral processing and analysis capabilities.
ENVI 4.5 delivers seamless integration of ENVI and ArcGIS, for file exchange between the ENVI and ArcGIS geodatabases. It delivers direct access to the full suite of map composition tools available with ESRI's ArcMap, providing a complete image processing workflow from data access and analysis, to a completed map product. Image processing and analysis done in ENVI can then be launched in ArcMap from within ENVI to generate reports and map compositions.
In Seattle, LizardTech engineers have dedicated themselves to slimming the cumbersome heft of geospatial files in the interests of optimized workflow, reduced storage requirements and speedier image delivery to internal and online users. Early this year the firm released GeoExpress 7, its newest version of the application customers use to shrink giant raster files by as much as 95 percent using LizardTech's patented mrSID compression format. See Figures 3-4.
Figure 3 Paul Christian, ESRI Homeland Security Specialist, is cropping a.sid image using GeoExpress in an office environment.
"Not only can you compress those images, but you can take existing images and you can combine them together into larger datasets," explained Senior Product Manager Jon Skiffington. "So a typical workflow for one of our customers might be that they have a thousand GeoTiff files and they want to combine those over to one large image and maybe project it to a coordinate system, or maybe do some color balancing and then compress. They can do all that in GeoExpress very easily."
In a fully implemented LizardTech storage and server network, two additional products would be installed—Spatial Express for storage and Express Server for image delivery—and GeoExpress would act as a command center to configure both of them. Customers who prefer archiving their data in an Oracle Spatial database, thereby eliminating time-consuming image pyramiding, can run the Spatial Express extension. The product allows gigabyte-sized images to be stored in Oracle as native mrSID or JPEG 2000 files. Both of these file formats support selective decompression.
"Rather than having to decompress the entire image, you can just request the region of interest that you want." Skiffington said. "Spatial Express will return that area, so it saves a lot of space, and it's a lot faster."
For most customers, easier storage and image access is likely to comprise just a portion of the workflow optimization plan. So LizardTech rounds out its product offering with Express Server, a distribution solution which links to GeoExpress and allows for the cataloging of geospatial images without using command line prompts or manipulating complex XML files. Imagery delivered by Express Server can be viewed simultaneously in Web Map Service clients, ESRI's ArcIMS (Internet Mapping Server), Oracle MapViewer, or with any number of lower-bandwidth mobile applications.
However, enterprise-level data exchange isn't always about open interfaces and brokering peace between file extensions. Strategic alliances that accelerate the assimilation of next-generation technologies by linking them to familiar products are additional factors to consider in the subjective judgment of the fully "tricked-out" geospatial enterprise. A case in point is Definiens Inc. of München, Germany. When this company joined the ArcGIS Integration Partner program last year it exposed its products to ESRI's installed base, and a considerably larger market, in one fell swoop.
Definiens specializes in automated image analysis for feature extraction and change detection at any scale—a capability of interest for organizations that manage natural resources, plan infrastructure or specialize in security and emergency response. Its eCognition Network Technology goes beyond the mere assessment of color and intensity in an image and looks at pixels in a wider contextual sense. By recognizing groups of pixels as objects and analyzing shape, texture, size and pixel group relationships, the Enterprise Image Intelligence suite of products seeks to emulate the skills of a trained image analyst.
This automation of feature extraction in a nuanced fashion allows users to distinguish, for example, between trees that make up a park and trees in a forest. The German Remote Sensing Data Center has used platform technology by Definiens to classify automatically bog habitats using an object-based approach that extracts features according to their actual shape, rather than as parcels. Another project funded by the European Space Agency resulted in a prototype application that fuses multiple input data to examine the suitability of land use for pipeline construction.
Distribution collaborations are pushing advanced capabilities like these deeper into the enterprise environment. PCI Geomatics, a Canadian vendor of geospatial decision support technology for the earth sciences market, agreed recently to market and provide technical support for Definiens' solutions in North America. PCI's Geomatica platform works with remote sensor data, GIS, digital photogrammetry, cartography and data visualization to provide image preprocessing technology that "complements our product suite for earth sciences," said Gregg Westerbeck, vice president of sales and general manager for Definiens' Americas operations.
Another partnership announced on July 9 is between Autodesk and Bentley Systems. They will expand interoperability between their portfolios of architectural, engineering, and construction software. The companies will exchange software libraries, including Autodesk RealDWG, to improve the ability to read and write the companies' respective DWG and DGN formats in mixed environments. They will facilitate work process interoperability to improve AEC workflows by enabling broader reuse of information generated during the design, construction, and operation of buildings and infrastructure.
These trends and developments point to some of the ways that open standards, industry consolidation and marketing alliances are helping to fill the data integration and image processing needs of enterprise-level GIS experts. More and more, customers want to abandon the fragmented outsourcing model of earlier years and work with turnkey solutions that ease the methods by which spatially relevant information is commingled with existing business data and operational or decision support intelligence.
by Rod Franklin, Reporter, Imaging Notes, Denver, Colo.