Software pulls foresters out of the woods

Software pulls foresters out of the woods

BY DREW ROBB | SPECIAL TO GCN

By rolling out a compression application that lets remote offices speed up dial-up transactions with the WAN, the Forest Service has eased the paperwork burden on its field staff.

The Agriculture Department agency has implemented Bridges graphics compression software from GraphOn Corp. of Morgan Hills, Calif.

One benefit of Bridges is that graphics-intensive forms that routinely required 40 minutes or more to transmit now download in less than one minute, agency officials said.

The agency also has moved from a server-side X Window e-mail system to Lotus Notes for its end users. The shift has reduced the time for message transmissions. A one-page message, which used to take about three minutes to appear, now shows up in a few seconds.

Budget constraints forced the agency to use its X Window system far longer than it intended, agency officials said.

All the service's main offices are connected through a LAN or a WAN, but it has hundreds of isolated sites outside the network. Remote stations operating via modem or 14.4-Kbps microwave connections found using network services slow.

In California, 150 small fire stations in wilderness areas operate outside the WAN. At Plumas National Forest in Quincy, Calif., for example, the service experienced long delays when attempting to use the X Window system. Time sheets especially caused severe logjams.

'It was taking way too long for each fire station to fill in their time sheets'30 to 40 minutes just to fill out a simple form,' said Rick Becker, a Forest Service computer systems analyst. Similar delays were common with Hewlett-Packard OpenMail, another server-based e-mail application. The system also was could not produce printouts, which the service needed.

When workers had to connect via modem, they were subjected to the same delays. For example, on a trip to San Diego, Becker saw delays of up to three minutes for the first page of an e-mail to appear.

Everyone into the van

Meanwhile back at Plumas, crews stationed in the forest had to drive to a district office to gain access and load time sheet information. Duty stations would maintain paper records for each two-week pay period.

At the end of each pay period, the entire team would spend a day driving to the district office and then another 45 minutes each entering the time sheet data.

'Due to a policy that existed until recently, we couldn't just send one person to do it for everybody,' Becker said. 'They all had to go.'
To solve the problem, the Forest Service ran a pilot of the Bridges software at the Plumas facility. Bridges uses a proprietary protocol called RXP to speed up X Window System traffic.
'Bridges saves our 600 to 1,000 users a total of around 200 man hours per two-week pay period, and that's only one forest,' Becker said. 'With 19 forests here in California using the system, the savings are significant.'

Bridges converts the X protocol to RXP, compressing graphics files and improving download speed. Bridges also provides access to all applications from any desktop PC or display device no matter the connection.

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