Martin J. France

GIS Support in a WAN Environment - 'From Plymouth to Aberdeen'

This paper presents the advantages and disadvantages of providing software support, problem resolution and software upgrades to 300+ GIS users on 19 sites across the UK. Much of this work can be done using the facilities of the academic network without the need for local experts. The paper looks in detail at the use of X-windows to aid problem resolution, with an interactive demonstration to illustrate the effects of network speed on the viability of the system. Problem management and central referral of unresolved problems/bugs to Esri will also be discussed. Finally, we take a look to the future and the possibilities offered by increased bandwidth and the WWW.

1. Introduction

To put this work in context one needs to commence with an appreciation of the author's situation, i.e. familiarity with software support over a widely distributed network. The author's organisation, The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is one of the main scientific research councils in the UK. Research is directed as the name would suggest at the environmental area, with five main groupings of institutes, these being the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, The British Geological Survey, The Centre for Coastal and Marine Sciences, The British Antarctic Survey and the Southampton Oceanography Centre. These centre/surveys in turn have constituent institutes/sites at many different locations throughout the UK, and one or two overseas (Antarctica in particular). The author's work for NERC Computer Services (NCS) involves the supply/installation and maintenance of Esri GIS software at a number of these locations, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Map of NERC GIS Sites in the UK

Part of the work involved in maintaining the software is the management and resolution of GIS problems the scientists at these locations may have with the software. It is this area in particular at which this paper is directed.

2. A Scientific Software Support Service

2.1 Enabling the scientist with appropriate scientific software

Figure 2. Software request structureSoftware request structure

NERC Computer Services supports many different software packages, these falling into the two broad areas of scientific software and office software. Many of these packages are supported at the Local Level i.e. by Local Support computer staff on individual sites. Other software packages are supported centrally at either Wallingford or Keyworth (see Fig. 1). When a scientist requests an installation of a package the request is made to Local Support on their site, as shown in Figure 2. Once the request has been received and agreed, a request is made to an appropriate central specialist supporter for installation of the package at a mutually convenient time. Some of the major software packages which are supported centrally are listed in the following table.

Major Software Packages Supported Centrally in NERC

Scientific Software
Office Software
ArcInfoEsriGIS Mapping and Analysis GroupWise NovellEmail, Diary, Task Management
ArcViewEsriDesktop Mapping Application WordPerfectCorelWord processor
ImagineErdasImage ProcessingNotes LotusText Object Database
SASSASStatistical and Graphical Analysis AccessMicrosoftDatabase
NAGNAGStatistical subroutine library 1-2-3LotusSpreadsheet
AVSAVS/UnirasVisualisationNetware NovellNOS
UNIRASAVS/UnirasGraphics/Visualisation PowerPointMicrosoftPresentation Graphics

The installation of software takes place either remotely or locally in the following ways:

a) Remotely

b) Locally

In the case of UNIX software applications such as ArcInfo, NCS uses its own package installation conventions. This was developed to maintain consistency across platforms and operating systems eg. Sun (SunOS & Solaris), Silicon Graphics (Irix) , DEC (Digital UNIX) platforms and thus aid the scientist. From the user point of view this means each software package is invoked from a set-up script eg. by typing "setup arc". The set-up script will set variables and other site-specific information. Standardised start-up scripts are used to aid in system management particularly in the area of license managers. This modus operandum necessitates the configuration and modification of standard vendor installation procedures to include "NERC extras" but leads to economies of scale and simplicity in the long term. This configuration and testing work is carried out on test machines at the central locations of Wallingford in Oxfordshire or Keyworth in Nottinghamshire.

2.2 Problem Management, Problem Resolution and Consultancy

Figure 3. Flow of Technical SupportFlow of support supply

Once scientific users begin to use the GIS software on project work, usually after some training, either formally from the supplier Esri at Watford, from NERC Computer Services, or via self-study eg. using Understanding GIS; they inevitably encounter problems and situations where they require assistance. Most of the GIS sites do not have Local Support staff with an in-depth knowledge of the GIS software, since it is a fairly specialist area. Hence, the query is frequently passed to NCS central support. Email is the usual method for this , with a record of the request being kept in local help desk software records. Other methods of requesting help from the central groups are via phone or for the user with the problem to Email central support directly , with a copy of the Email sent to the NCS local support staff.

Once a query has been received in central support, it can be dealt with promptly if the answer is known to the central specialist. It may also be dealt with by recreating the problem on a test machine in order to resolve the problem. The problem may not necessarily be related to the GIS software, it may be a hardware problem or a swap space problem, eg. if remaining /tmp space is small after a workstation has not been rebooted for some time. In such instances Central Support work in conjunction with the Local Support staff to resolve the problem.

If further information is required to resolve a problem the user is contacted, normally by phone as this is the optimal way of obtaining any outstanding information required by the central supporter in the most timely fashion. Email maybe used where the further information required is specific in nature; this method can prove long and drawn out if several iterations of email are required between user and central support. It is often necessary to login to the user's machine at the remote site over the JANET Wide Area Network (WAN) using X to view the problem. This is to look at the user's data, which usually gives a clearer idea of where the problem may lie. Occasionally data is downloaded from the user's machine via FTP to a central test machine (or disk local to that machine). This may happen if the network speed between the central site and the remote site is slow, or if the problem is a series of problems which may develop into consultancy for a particular project. Transfer of data is less common now with increased bandwidth. The slowest network speeds encountered are 64kbit/sec, with most connections between sites now being 2Mb/sec. Network speed will of course be affected by the amount of network traffic at any particular time.

Unresolved queries and software bugs are reported to Esri (UK) by the central contacts, with problem resolution or bug confirmation being reported back via the central contacts to the user. As users at sites become more experienced, simple and increasingly more complex problems are resolved with fellow GIS 'experts'. An example of this is the ITE GIS network, which aids users with problems that are commonly encountered in the Ecological GIS area. Other users raise problems on mail groups such as Esri-L. This enables central support staff to deal with the more complex issues, or problems from sites where there may be only a few inexperienced GIS users. With over 300 GIS users in NERC on 19 sites, the amount of staff time required to facilitate upgrades, training, demonstrations and problem resolution is not inconsiderable.

The method of support adopted for GIS and other centrally supported software has several benefits, the main one of which is economy of scale. Whereas it would prove too costly for one site, or group of sites to employ a GIS specialist, in using this system the costs are spread amongst many sites and users. The NCS central support specialists build up a knowledge of software problems that are common to users across NERC. They also gain a knowledge of what applications the software is being used for in a wide variety of environmental spheres. The main disadvantage of the 'central support system' is that the users on local sites only have face-to-face contact with central supporters on an infrequent basis. Having said that, once contact has been made with a user on a site visit or via demonstration, or training, it is then easier to maintain contact in the future by the remote methods (phone, email) previously outlined.

3. Future Directions and Possibilities

With ever increasing bandwidth, it is likely that more software will be loaded remotely in the future, even the several hundred megabytes that constitute ArcInfo (with samples data). This may be done by downloading the software from a Web site with on-line instructions as already used by software companies such as ORACLE.

The overlap of ArcInfo and ArcView software with the latter not having as steep a learning curve, and a front-end which is more familiar to many PC users opens up the software to many more potential users. Eventually GIS software may be bundled as part of the 'standard' desktop software suite as believed to be already planned by some vendors.


Thanks are due to Pete Lucas and Elizabeth Gill of NERC Computer Services for their help with information on bandwidth and HTML formatting during the writing of this paper.

Martin J France
GIS and Image Analysis Co-ordinator
NERC Computer Services
Maclean Building,
Crowmarsh Gifford

Telephone: +44(0) 1491 692445
Fax: +44(0) 1491 692446