Army Corps ready to build on Oracle 11g

Researchers find potentially valuable advances in Web services and working with geographic data

REALIZING POTENTIAL: Researchers at the Engineer Research and Development Center's Information Technology Lab discuss the latest in computer modeling technology.

Photo courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers

Earlier this month, Oracle released the much-anticipated upgrade to its platform database management system, at least for Linux. But the research arm of the Army Corps of Engineers has had a head start on Oracle Database 11g, testing a beta version of the software for the better part of this year.

And the agency is finding a lot about Oracle Database 11g that can be put to use, said Michael Smith, a physical scientist at the corps' Cold Regions Research Engineering Laboratory, who has been testing the software with various beta programs the facility is developing. In particular, new capabilities in Web services, developmental aids, and new sets of geospatial and 3-D-specific data structures could prove to be valuable.

The Hanover, N.H.-based laboratory is one of seven nationwide that make up the corps' Engineer Research and Development Center, the research arm of the Army Corps of Engineers. One part of this lab houses the Water Resources and Remote Sensing GIS Center of Expertise for the Corps. Not surprisingly, the lab does a lot of work with spatial data, such as those placed in the field to report on weather conditions or other factors. And it requires databases to house the tsunami of data these sensors generate.

Smith has been running beta versions of Oracle Database 11 database software to identify new features that could be of use with such data. In particular, it has been looking at the Oracle Spatial 11g option, for some of the geospatial material.

One project that could benefit is a laboratory program that went operational in May, called ORM2. ORM2, an acronym for the 'Operation and Maintenance Information Business Link Regulatory Module,' is a Web-based application with a fully integrated geographic information system that the Corps plans to expand. The ORM2 system will track the permit actions by physical locations in the landscape alongside all aquatic resources at that location and associated impacts.

Whenever anyone wants to develop on a navigable waterway ' such as putting in a boat dock or filling in some wetlands ' is required to apply for a corps wetlands permit. ORM can track how wetlands are being developed from year to year. ORM2 leverages database-based GIS technology developed for CorpsMap, the Corps agency-wide geospatial data portal. Within the next six months or so, the agency will transition this application to Oracle 11.

The new software also helps through enhanced Web services support. Bits of the permit information that comes through ORM are often sent to other agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, needs the information to help judge toxicity of water in a given region. The Fish and Wildlife Service keeps tabs on applications in the course of protecting endangered fish species.

The lab is now working to deliver that information automatically through Web services. ORM will consume data via Web services, too. Currently, those Web service operations require Oracle Application Server. When Oracle Database 11g is deployed, however, these Web services will be dispatched directly from the database itself, due to the new database's native Web services support through Oracle XML DB. Thus, the number of moving parts necessary to share data with other agencies has been reduced.

As ORM shows, the agency is already doing more work to merge its geospatial data and its operational data. "Our geospatial information and our business information are being dovetailed more and more in the same space," he said. 'Information in the matters of finances, project management information, water and land management, can all be tied together spatially," he said.

In additional to vector geospatial data structures, the center is developing new database applications to work with another advanced spatial data structure that is new to Oracle Spatial 11g, namely point cloud storage and indexing functions. A point cloud is a set or data collection of points that represent three-dimensional space. The laboratory uses this type of data structure for recording measurements that come from its LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) instruments.

Up until now such data had to be stored in flat text files. Databases had no way of tying together the datasets in such a way that they could be calculated against as a single entity. However, Oracle Spatial 11g can store a point cloud as a single object, against which developers can write simple queries to do line-of-site, data point intensity or nearest neighbor calculations "without even moving the data out of the database," Smith said.

Finally, Smith appreciated the revamped developer environment that comes with Oracle, Application Express (APEX). The center develops many of its applications for use in a Web browser. The new Apex environment "allows us to separate the backend database elements from the front-end look-and-feel. The presentation is all handled as metadata that is stored in the database," Smith said.

The Web approach allows the center to create applications that can run across multiple platforms. For instance, the lab itself develops in Linux, though the two Corps data centers run Oracle on Sun Solaris servers. The programs the center creates can run on both platforms, or even Microsoft Windows as well.

"One thing that is nice is that we don't have to do any code modifications for compatibility. We're completely platform independent," he said, before adding, "Database dependent, but platform independent."

Note: This story was updated on Sept. 11, 2007.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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