A ‘Safe’ Perspective on Interoperability and Open Source GIS

By Directions Staff

Safe Software is in a unique position to support the spatial information industry with technology that promotes interoperability.They believe that that OGC has "provided clarity to the interoperability picture" and the company is also peeking into the future to see where the next opportunity may lie in capitalizing on GML and WFS.Read the entire interview below with Safe's President, Don Murray, and vice president of Product Development, Dale Lutz.

Directions Magazine (DM): Why the focus on Open Source GIS? What are you seeing in the marketplace that would encourage support for building products that support open source products such as MapServer?
SAFE: Our goal as a company is to ensure our products provide value to the widest possible set of users, and that mission spans both vendor and open source boundaries.We try to ensure that our products work with all the leading systems in each of the arenas we play in.We aren't particularly focusing on Open Source GIS, although there have been a number of announcements (and more to come) about our technology being used as a bridge between commercial and open source offerings.

For example, our SpatialDirect product complements web mapping packages by adding a data export capability to them, and so it was logical to include MapServer in the list of supported products.Along a similar line, our FME product is often used to load, extract from, and maintain spatial databases, and consequently it made sense to include PostGIS/PostGreSQL support in it.At this point it is too early to estimate the number of users that will take advantage of these efforts, but customers are asking for these kinds of capabilities and we are listening.In the end, it's all about customers wanting to have choices about which technologies they want to use, and where.

DM: Is open source technology being driven by the educational community or do you see it entering the commercial market as well?
SAFE: It is definitely being used in price-sensitive areas such as education.There is also some commercial interest: for example, we know of several large organizations making heavy use of PostGIS.We've also been approached by end users such as municipal and federal governments, as well as forestry companies, who are using Open Source technology as part of their solution package.There is interest out there in the commercial market for open source products but it is still too early to tell whether or not it is going to take off.Our strategy is to be prepared for any eventuality and to support every data format and database that we possibly can.

DM: Is your support of multiple spatial databases and file formats being driven by interoperability issues that have been the focus of OGC?
SAFE: Absolutely.The work of OGC has provided clarity to the interoperability picture and certainly underscored its importance.OGC developments like GML and WFS pave the way for future work, and we've been quick to support these.However, these developments do not in themselves solve all interoperability issues, and so we continue to see a need for powerful direct-connect native data interchange.So we have spent our efforts on reading and writing as many native formats as we can.

We have also spent an enormous amount of effort on our semantic transformation capabilities.We have learned that getting data from one format to another is only a small part of the problem.The other part, which is actually much harder, is transforming the data into the view that the users/application needs.(Notice that we say needs, not "wants").When it comes to integrating legacy applications into a new system, you have to give the legacy system exactly what it needs or it won't work and by definition it is often not possible to change the legacy application.Similarly, there are situations where real-time or near-real-time exchange of data is needed, and for this to work, it must be presented to the consuming system in the data model it wants, which may not necessarily match the data model of the providing system.

We have struggled for quite some time to accurately define what Safe Software's products do.Typically, people have thought of us as the translator folks.But our products do so much more than that - they have to in order to meet our clients' needs.We now think we have a definition (or at least are a lot closer) with the term Spatial ETL.ETL stands for Extract, Transform, and Load and is an industry in itself in the database market. It is the "T" in ETL that separates our products from the other translators.

DM: Are your product enhancements driven by customers experiencing the need to use different vendors software solutions or more from legacy issues dealing with conversion of data that was in an older digital format?
SAFE: Both.We are seeing more and more organizations using multiple vendors' products.The reasons for this may be historical, budgetary, functional, or political, but invariably there are good reasons.Very often organizations need to keep legacy applications running at the same time as introducing some new technology for a different set of workflows, but all the while needing to share access to the same data.There has been a lot of talk about interoperability in the past 10 years and organizations now expect to be able to operate in heterogeneous environments.Certainly our products have enabled many, many organizations to do just that, and with a minimum amount of effort.Indeed, it is reasonable to say that it is not just possible to operate in such an environment - it is most definitely practical to do so.This has been one of our main goals in the past few years and we believe we have now achieved this goal (at least, that's what our customers tell us).

We have also been working hard at integrating our technology even more tightly into a number of vendors' products to make this type of interoperability even more seamless than it is currently.We'll be making announcements about a number of what we call "application extenders" in the next few weeks.The results of using these, especially when combined with our transformation technology, truly streamline access to data for end users.

DM: I notice that you support SVG? What type of conversion is being done and do you see that SVG is being adopted more because of its better map rendering capabilities?
SAFE: We'd been asked by a number of customers to support output to SVG, usually so that they could replace web pages that used to display raster images.We can take any of the vector formats we read and output SVG, and along the way write into the SVG presentation information, behaviors, and attribute information.The power of SVG drastically exceeds that of a raster image, particularly when you embed some interesting behaviors with your data.For example, web browsers can be enabled to do panning, zooming, querying, and even report generation on an SVG map.For certain types of situations, it provides an ideal way of publishing spatial data in a web environment.

Published Tuesday, August 12th, 2003

Written by Directions Staff

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