Oracle Spatial User Group Meets in Australia

By Simon Greener

On August 18th, the first meeting of the Oracle Spatial user community took place in Australia.Given that this technology has been available now for well over 10 years, it was a long time coming.This is not to say that it is anyone's fault.We are all just too busy "doing more with less." This and other factors will be explored more later.The great take home message was that this first User Group was extremely well attended.Over half were the user community, the rest were vendors.

Eve Kleiman, Principal Product Manager for Oracle Spatial in the Asia Pacific region, organized this User Group.A big thanks should be given to her, especially with her heavy workload.

The Time Delay

But let's look into this gap between the availability of the technology and the delay in the creation of a community around it.One consultant, in a discussion with me, typified the Oracle dilemma when he said that he was "still waiting for the Oracle Spatial wave to break." To be honest, this is part of the problem: everyone has been waiting for someone else to make the wave break.The other side is that the GIS community has been resistant to the technology; the wind has definitely been blowing offshore!

1.The Community.
Oracle's background, so it seems to me, is making technology for Fortune 1000, etc.companies: its focus is on business customers, business applications, corporate profit and goals, not on individuals (their goals and aspirations).GIS software vendors have always been focused on enabling uptake via the individual.They've pushed to get universities involved, developed strong training courses, made users capable of showing what the technology can do (while still being reliant on business managers to implement the business changes required to leverage the technology), and made users feel that it is their technology.

Is it bottom up or top down? It is both.

A common theme of presenters at this conference was about taking the G out of GIS: the focus was definitely on the host business, its needs and profitability.And so it should.Yet, for me, Justin Lokitz summed up the dilemma when he talked about the Oracle Spatial team being a tightly knit community, united in their passion for the technology.Because, to be frank, geospatial data and processing is cool and exciting.Something people want to get passionate about!

So, how does Oracle integrate the top down with the bottom up?

2.Technology Accessibility.
Before Oracle made its technology freely downloadable via its Technology Network portal (TechNet), access to Oracle technology was impossible for geospatial professionals.They could not download it, configure it, explore it.You needed to work for a business that had the Oracle Relational Database Management System (ORDBMS) installed.However, if you have ever worked for a business with an ORDBMS (doesn't matter whose) on a server, access was still difficult because the database administrator (DBA) had to be involved. (New ease of management functions at 10g are making Oracle easier to get up and running without having to go on a DBA course.)

Again, here is where the discontinuity occurs: the geospatial professional has always had access to the technology: they were/are the installers, configurers, managers of the spatial technology stack.It is this discontinuity that is at the heart of why the wave has not yet broken.

But so is the skill set of the individual geospatial professional.

3.The SQL Skill Set.The famous paper, "Why not SQL!" by Max Egenhofer (published in the International Journal of Geographical Information Systems 6 (2): 71-85, 1992,) just might have convinced vendors and students (the community) that SQL was not a good language for spatial data management and access.Re-reading that paper, having used Oracle Spatial (and that great product, Manifold,) one sees how dated it is.(Egenhofer himself would probably admit this.) The practical reality is that SQL, while not perfect, is a language that really makes data access simple, logical and easy. I would even say that SQL is good enough for 95%+ of all our needs. This needs to be changed so that the wave will break: education service providers (universities, etc.) need to plug this gap by going back to basic database theory and providing the framework for why databases are so important (and proprietary file formats, so loved by the geospatial vendors, are ancient history!).

Even if we can do this, we hit the value question.

4.Microsoft and Value. Many people don't realize that Oracle still has a lion's share of the Windows server DBMS market. Oracle is seen as an expensive product.But GIS isn't cheap.So why is this argument used at all? I constantly hear from GIS people that SQLServer is better because it is free: it is bundled with Windows Server at no additional cost.But many don't realize that Oracle Workgroup server for Windows Server has a sub-$10,000 recommended retail price, and that every copy of the Oracle ORDBMS comes with spatial capabilities at no additional cost.(Eve reminded people of this in her opening!) On top of this, SQLServer has no spatial capabilities! So, to compare SQLServer with Oracle Spatial, one really needs to create an equation which is more like this: "SQLServer + GIS Vendor Spatial Data Access Product" = Oracle Spatial. (Let's compare apples with apples, please!) Whenever I mention this, the topic of conversation is normally changed.

However, perhaps it will only be the entry of that provider of ubiquitous user-centric software, Microsoft, into the SpatialDB market with SQLServer that will enable the individual geospatial professional to finally realize what a great product Oracle Spatial actually is.Then they will realize how rich and advanced the Oracle Spatial technology stack is.

And it was the richness of this technology stack that Lokitz so ably demonstrated.This was reinforced by users who talked about their use of this technology. Kleiman, to her credit, wanted users to be frank about their experiences, hopes and aspirations.They didn't disappoint. And Lokitz, also to his credit, was frank about the technology.But it isn't hard to be frank about weaknesses when the product itself is so solid. What the Oracle Spatial team is doing inside the database is ground breaking. Lokitz likened this to being the lightning rod for all the issues with new kernel features because they are pushing the bounds more than any other technology within the server team.

The users know this.The users spoke clearly and ably about their experiences: from the self-professed GIS programmer (David Jarrard) from Department of Roads in Queensland who clearly showed how good the technology was.He taught me a thing or two ‑ thanks mate! Or the self-professed non-GIS programmer (Trevor Tracey-Patte) from Geoscience Australia whose tips were frank and from the heart: he also explained how they use UNM MapServer in their portal to deliver mapping.The users clearly wanted to share what they learned so that others could learn.

Have you noticed something about these two examples? Without this User Group, Jarrard might have gone only to a MapInfo user conference, and Tracey-Patte to an open-source GIS/IT developer conference, and I for one would have missed the opportunity to have been enriched by their quite different experiences of using Oracle Spatial.

This, in the end, is the value of these User Group meetings or conferences at large: the chance to network, to share, complain and to feel part of a greater group.And this chance to feel a part of a greater group is why we need more of these meetings.Database-centric geospatial professionals are at the cusp of the new wave that will break. They need to get together.For those of us who remember that the first ESRI User Conference had fewer than 50 people attending, the chance to feel that you are not alone is worth more than anything else.

The attendees did participate in a discussion about where to go from here.I expressed my views, but afterwards, in writing this, I actually thought that non-Oracle Spatial users should be allowed to go just to find out what the fuss is all about!

Well done Kleiman and Lokitz. Oracle, if you are listening, please invest in us users so that we will invest in you.Finally, a big thanks to Ian Edwards from OpenSpatial who put so much effort into organizing the event.

Published Monday, September 5th, 2005

Written by Simon Greener

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