Friday, July 27, 2007

Bentley Systems Builds Data Bridge To The 21st Century With Its Geoengineering Strategy (01apr07)

As many of the vendors of GIS and design automation technology look toward the next millennium, many of these same vendors are trying to figure out the best way to get there. This isn’t the case, however, with Bentley Systems. They are poised for the future and are posturing themselves very well with a number of new strategic technologies, products, and alliances — and they are doing it their way.

In many respects, Bentley has always had its own way of looking at things, and GIS is a perfect example of this. What is commonly referred to as a geographic information system (GIS) in most other circles is termed geoengineering in Bentley vernacular, although Bentley’s term seems to be gaining wider acceptance. The company defines geoengineering as the convergence of engineering and planning technologies that integrate the precision and databases of CAD with the spatial analysis and planning capabilities of GIS. In other words, geoengineering is sort of a CAD/GIS hybrid. This broad definition, then, lets Bentley provide a wide range of products that address the entire life cycle of infrastructure and facilities projects, including planning, design, engineering, analysis, construction, operations, management, and maintenance.

Bentley Beginnings

Bentley was founded in 1984, offering Intergraph IGDS users a lower cost method for adding additional seats to their Digital VAX 11/780-based systems. The software provided by Bentley enabled these users to accomplish the same functionality as before, but with lower cost terminals. This software evolved into what we know today as Bentley’s core technology — MicroStation. Intergraph acquired a 50-percent interest in Bentley Systems and by the late 1980s it was the basic graphic system supporting Intergraph’s applications in nearly all the markets in which the company participated. Until the end of 1994, Intergraph was fully responsible for the sales and marketing of MicroStation worldwide.

Since Bentley took over responsibility for the sales and marketing of MicroStation from Intergraph two years ago, the company has quickly matured into a "heavy hitter" developer and marketer of technical solutions for the architecture, engineering, and GIS communities. From less than 200 people on board at the end of 1994, Bentley has grown to be a 700-person organization with over $120 million in annual revenues. Bentley has more than 250,000 users around the world; over 65,000 subscribers to Bentley SELECT, the company's comprehensive service and licensing program; more than 600 independent software developers (ISDs) providing applications for MicroStation; and more than 500 value-added resellers (VARs) for MicroStation worldwide.

Bentley’s goal is to maximize the productivity and collaboration of large-scale geoengineering projects. These projects typically involve complex processes with many users, a multitude of information, and long life cycles. Bentley offers engineering software products and services that uniquely scale to the entire engineering process.

Bentley's MicroStation products offer users high-performance solutions for their specific needs. MicroStation includes a full range of focused products for design, planning, drafting, review, maintenance, and field operations. The unified architecture of MicroStation ensures that all products fully interoperate. Also, Bentley offers engineering-level applications for productivity far beyond traditional tools.

MicroStation and its MicroStation Development Language (MDL) also serve as an integration and development environment. The products can hold and securely manage the full range and diversity of large-scale project data. MicroStation also integrates with enterprise information systems.

The Engineering Back Office

Recently, Bentley has expanded its focus beyond design/engineering to also address the integration of engineering-related software with the rest of an organization’s information technology (IT) infrastructure. This effort really began last November when Bentley announced the start of its Engineering Back Office (EBO). Topping this strategy are a new line of Internet/intranet-enabled middleware products, called ModelServers, as well as agreements with Netscape and Oracle. These moves hold major significance because, for the first time, engineering organizations can unite their desktop systems and data with enterprise IT systems and databases.

The Engineering Back Office taps the emerging IT infrastructure of the Internet and three-tier client/server technology as the basis of connectivity and sharing information. The new server products, including ModelServer Publisher and ModelServer Continuum, allow engineering data to be stored in corporate databases, integrated with enterprise data, and served to enterprise clients, including desktop applications and Web-browsers.

The company demonstrates an excellent understanding of the ongoing transition from traditional mainframe computer solutions, to client/server computing during the past decade, to today’s three-tier client/server approach to system architecture. Software basically can be segmented into three general categories:

  • Presentation – What the user works with on the desktop.
  • Applications – The software that responds to user inputs and, in some manner, manipulates stored data.
  • Storage – File and database management tools.

These three types of software can exist on one or more computer systems. Many contemporary systems use a PC or workstation client for both the Presentation and Application code, with a separate server for Storage. The three-tier concept attempts to reduce the amount of software on the client and creates a new layer called an Application server that sits between the clients and the Storage servers. The software utilized on the Application servers is often referred to as "middleware."

Although this structure seems much more complex than simply networking a bunch of desktop computers together, there are some distinct advantages. These advantages include:

  • Many enterprise IT departments are moving to the three-tier architecture. Adapting engineering and GIS software to the same concept will facilitate integrating the two parts of the organization.
  • A modular three-tier approach makes it easier to change one element of a computer solution without impacting the rest of the system.
  • Database changes can be made transparent to the clients.
  • This three-tier approach is a natural concept for Web-related solutions.
  • Security is enhanced since the client software does not have direct access to database information.

ModelServer – Bentley’s New Middleware

Bentley’s MicroStation product line will continue to be the company’s primary software for desktop clients. Server-resident products, however, will carry the "ModelServer" designation. The name reflects the fact that this software responds to requests related to engineering models. One major objective is to enable MicroStation users to access data in "foreign" formats and to enable users of other graphic systems to access MicroStation files. This needs to be done without worrying about which release of a particular package created a given file and without the need to overtly translate files from one format to another.

Beginning in the early 1990s a new software architecture, called three-tier client/server, became popular. In the three-tier C/S architecture, portions of the application layer are moved to a new set of server programs, called application servers, also known as middleware servers. As a result, the client programs can be much thinner and more flexible. Rather than directly connecting to data servers, clients communicate with intermediate application servers, which either process requests locally or forward them to other application servers. Application servers, in turn, communicate with data servers for data storage and retrieval.

The three-tier C/S model offers several advantages over the desktop model. Database designers have far greater flexibility in changing the implementation since changes can be totally transparent to the clients. Since key application results can be calculated on servers controlled centrally, clients are not required to understand all of the subtle nuances of such calculations, including proper handling of error conditions. Clients in a three-tier system are designed to be as thin as possible, with much mission-critical application processing and data synchronization performed on application servers. Application developers have more flexibility in optimizing performance and network traffic by distributing the application load between the client and the server.

Internet browsers connected to Internet servers are a perfect example of a three-tier C/S system. The program that responds to a browser's request for a uniform resource locator (URL) is an application server that attempts to locate and potentially reformat data from a data server. Alternatively, it might attempt to create the response locally by executing other server resident programs on behalf of the browser.

The benefits of the three-tier approach are evident in the context of Internet browsers, the ultimate thin client. The same program can be used to execute a virtually unlimited number of application server programs, with very little local configuration dependencies. Almost all Web pages can be accessed from any browser program, regardless of the platform on which it runs. Of course, there are exceptions such as plug-ins that are browser and platform-specific, but for the most part the Web is based on a single, platform-independent standard, HTML.

In the last year or so, however, a new twist has been added to the Internet C/S architecture—Java. Java can be viewed as a portable application layer that moves between application servers and desktop clients on demand. This is one way of overcoming the conflicting goals of keeping clients thin while performing as much appropriate application processing local to the client. However, to accomplish this, Java applications must be portable across all potential client platforms.

The ModelServer Product Line For The Engineering Back Office

ModelServer Publisher — was the first Engineering Back Office product. The server product electronically publishes Bentley’s MicroStation or Autodesk's AutoCAD drawings, maps, and models to any Web browser-based desktop. ModelServer Publisher works on-demand from centrally stored data and guarantees that published information is accurate and up-to-date. Unlike file conversion "plug-ins", ModelServer Publisher has zero cost-of-administration for desktop users.

ModelServer Publisher and Bentley’s Engineering Back Office are based on Internet software server technology from Netscape and engineering software from Bentley. The two companies have agreed on Bentley integrating Netscape's FastTrack Server and Enterprise Server software products into the Engineering Back Office.

ModelServer Publisher server-based software converts engineering data in formats such as MicroStation DGN and AutoCAD DWG files into a Web-based format on demand, enabling these files to be viewed by Web browsers, such as Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer. Beyond MicroStation and AutoCAD, it also handles many data formats found in CAD and GIS environments, such as SVF, CGM, VRML, and others. It will also include template pages for easy set-up by a Webmaster, and can be extended with Java applets. Using HyperText Markup Language (HTML) techniques, the software links the user to the actual drawing file without the need to install MicroStation or similar software on the client. ModelServer Publisher also converts all the applicable reference files, fonts and symbol libraries to a Web-based format.

We see ModelServer Publisher as a useful tool in moving beyond personal productivity applications to an enterprise workflow solution. It can be used in an internal intranet environment or accessed across the Internet with the same tools. In fact, a user need not know where the data is stored to use this package successfully.

Document security is a growing concern in the technical community. Current collaborative engineering solutions often involve transferring entire source documents across the network to others who need to view the information. Once the drawing file is transmitted, the creator of that file no longer has control over what subsequently happens to it. ModelServer Publisher minimizes this problem by simply providing access to the drawing to a remote browser user, it does not actually transmit the file to that user.

There will initially be two versions of ModelServer Publisher. A single active channel version that incorporates Netscape's FastTrack Server software and a multi-channel version that incorporates Netscape's Enterprise Server. A single active channel means that one person at a time can access the data, but since this takes very little time, many individuals can actually share the system. The multi-channel version provides access to multiple users at the same time.

ModelServer Continuum — is the second major product of the Engineering Back Office. This server product creates a "contiguous" database of engineering and enterprise data by storing engineering maps and drawings in corporate IT databases and "serving up" data to MicroStation application and Web clients.

Because ModelServer Continuum utilizes corporate IT databases, it breaks down the walls between GIS/engineering and enterprise data. Local and federal government agencies, utility companies, plant owners, and large corporations who manage engineering assets will be among the first to create a "total information system." Such a system, which contains engineering, spatial, and enterprise data, will help everyone in those enterprises make far more informed decisions.

ModelServer Continuum also boasts advanced transaction management features to meet the special multi-user workflow demands of large engineering projects. First, it minimizes collisions through record-level locking, an advance over file-level locking. Second, it includes long-transaction management, which coordinates and resolves collisions that inevitably occur in extended work sessions in a multi-user environment. Lastly, it features project branching, which allows users to experiment with new ideas and later synchronize their changes with the project if necessary.

Last month, Bentley began beta shipments of ModelServer Continuum product supporting Release 7.3.3 of Oracle Universal Server Spatial Data Option (SDO). The resulting combination is the first commercial information system that spans enterprise and engineering data. ModelServer Continuum serves as an enterprise-wide engineering information broker connecting engineering client software from Bentley and other suppliers to data stored in Oracle Universal Server using SDO. In other words, Continuum acts as an application server on top of SDO. Supported clients include MicroStation GeoGraphics, MicroStation GeoOutlook, as well as ESRI’s ArcView.

Because ModelServer Continuum interoperates with ModelServer Publisher, it can deliver engineering data on demand to any desktop web browser. Organizations need maintain only one copy of their data. The collective information now including engineering and spatial data can be shared throughout their extended enterprises.

ModelServer Continuum also provides multi-user access to engineering information with short- and long-term transaction management. It includes Bentley’s Open Engineering Connectivity (OEC), an API that makes all server functionality available to other applications.

MicroStation-based clients can use ModelServer Continuum to maintain all graphical and non-graphical data in a standard relational database, rather than in pre-segmented data files. When an edit session is initiated, the applicable data is extracted from the database, and a temporary set of design files is created. The MicroStation applications, such as MicroStation GeoGraphics, are used as they would be today, and when the edit session is completed, ModelServer Continuum places the modified information back in the database.

ModelServer TeamMate — is a server-based implementation of the MicroStation TeamMate product for document and workflow management of file-based information. ModelServer TeamMate is designed to provide uniform control over access, authorization, and revisions to files from both MicroStation-based and Internet browser-based clients. ModelServer TeamMate includes the same workflow coordination tools incorporated in the MicroStation TeamMate program. In fact, existing MicroStation TeamMate clients and projects will work with ModelServer TeamMate without change.

By implementing ModelServer TeamMate as an application-server program, access to all file-based project information can be easily and securely granted for all file types to all clients without requiring complicated client-level programming libraries.

The current Micro-Station TeamMate document management package is file-oriented and is typically installed on all user systems. ModelServer TeamMate is a server-based implementation that provides uniform control over access, authorization, and file revisions from both MicroStation-based and Internet browser-based clients. Like ModelServer Publisher, ModelServer TeamMate transparently handles translations between MicroStation and AutoCAD formats. ModelServer TeamMate supports import and export of DGN, DWG, DXF, IGES, and STEP files. This product is expected to be available around mid-1997.

ModelServer Publisher is priced at US$9950 per server for a single-channel version which serves one client at a time. It includes a copy of Netscape FastTrack Server. The multi-channel version of ModelServer Publisher, for serving any number of concurrent clients, is priced at US$24,500 per server. It includes a copy of Netscape Enterprise Server and is currently available. ModelServer Continuum running under SunOS is in a beta release now and priced at US$37,500 per server and is expected to be available in Q3 1997. Plans also call for the product to integrate with other RDBMS platforms beyond Oracle and a version running under Windows NT starting later this year.

Bentley Expands Geoengineering Line With New Tools

Last month Bentley announced three new geoengineering tools, MicroStation GeoOutlook, MicroStation GeoExchange, and MicroStation GeoCoordinator. These new products represent a continued expansion of the company’s geoengineering product line that increases the value of geoengineering data and boost the productivity of geoengineering activities.

MicroStation GeoExchange — Is a translator that converts geoengineering data between MicroStation GeoGraphics and other industry standard formats, including ESRI and MapInfo. The comprehensive product processes both spatial and attribute information. Because the product is fully configurable, users can provide site-specific rules for more customized translation. Using MicroStation GeoExchange, MicroStation-based projects can employ geoengineering data from virtually any source and can create data for use by virtually any system.

MicroStation GeoOutlook — Is a low-cost, easy-to-use desktop and mobile tool for accessing and analyzing geoengineering data. It is intended for planners, managers, and field-based workers who participate in geoengineering projects but don’t need the data creation abilities or full power of MicroStation GeoGraphics. MicroStation GeoOutlook offers map data querying, basic spatial analysis, graphical presentation, feature management, and reporting. Users can simultaneously view vector and raster data. Also, the tool connects to a variety of desktop or enterprise databases, including Oracle, Informix, and Microsoft Access.

MicroStation GeoCoordinator — Is a projection management system designed exclusively for MicroStation and is based on technology from Mizar Systems Limited (Vancouver, BC). It assigns Coordinate Systems to individual maps, acknowledges coordinates from any assigned projection system, and converts MicroStation data from one Coordinate System to another. In addition, users can generate map grids based on any supported Coordinate System. The product includes a complete library of worldwide projection systems from Mentor Systems, Inc. (Thornton, CO).

All three new geoengineering tools are MDL-based. Each serves as both an end-user tool and a platform for other applications and customizations. MicroStation GeoExchange and MicroStation GeoCoordinator are both priced at US$1,495. MicroStation GeoOutlook is priced at US$995. Special pricing is available for Bentley SELECT subscribers. MicroStation GeoCoordinator is available now as a released product and the other tools are available as beta products.

The Open Engineering Connectivity Specification

To encourage full access to all project services available in the Engineering Back Office from any client program, Bentley will publish a set of API's for each of the ModelServer products. These API's, collectively referred to as the Open Engineering Connectivity (OEC) specification, allow users and third parties to customize, extend, and create new clients of ModelServers. These APIs are network-based and language-independent, allowing client development using various programming environments including Visual Basic, Java, C, C++, ActiveX, etc. For example, the OEC specification for ModelServer Publisher includes all necessary information for creating a client-side application to embed views of any MicroStation DGN or AutoCAD DWG file inside display forms on an HTML page or in a Visual Basic application. When combined with ModelServer TeamMate, these same applications can perform user authorization, check drawing status and location and perform workflow validation.

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Last year, Bentley formed a new affiliation with a company called NetSpace Systems Inc. (Huntsville, AL) that will offer technologies for design and management of facilities networks. The products emerging from NetSpace fully integrate network engineering data with existing corporate information technology (IT) architectures for the gas and electric utilities and telecom industries. NetSpace is a wholly-owned, but independent Strategic Affiliate of Bentley Systems. As a Bentley Strategic Affiliate, NetSpace is well positioned to address the worldwide utilities industry, where Bentley’s MicroStation is already widely used. Geoengineering is the enabling technology for NetSpace.

In March, at the AM/FM International Conference, NetSpace launched ESpace and GSpace, electric and gas automated mapping/facilities management/ geographic information systems (AM/FM/GIS) products for utilities companies. Both products provide out-of-the-box electric or gas utility facility management systems based on MicroStation GeoGraphics and MicroStation 95 running under Windows NT and 95.

ESpace and GSpace are database-driven applications. Symbology and facility/feature rules are defined in industry-standard relational databases, allowing utilities to easily and quickly configure company standards and rules for symbology, network connectivity, attribute definition, attribute constraints and defaults, value lists, and other functionality. This unique approach lets users generate of graphical user interface (GUI) menus on the fly. Both products are delivered with standard models for electric and gas facility networks. The models are supported by fully functional tools for placement, editing, tracing, and analysis. Standard map and engineering work order generation are integral to the applications. ESpace also provides for interfacing to industry-standard network analysis packages such as ABB’s FeederAll.

These NetSpace products represent a significant departure from the approach taken by many existing AM/FM/GIS systems, which traditionally have required pre-definition of the GUI and significant setup time to configure the rules basis for the application.

Both products include an intelligent land base model and associated capture and maintenance tools. The products provide a street centerline model suitable for dispatching applications, along with addressing and service locations that are fully integrated with the gas and electric facility models. By extending the power of MicroStation GeoGraphics with its product offerings, NetSpace offers sophisticated network facility model management and spatial GIS capabilities in a single package. Users can take advantage of the extensive capabilities of MicroStation GeoGraphics, including thematic mapping, spatial analysis, and reporting capabilities.

ESpace and GSpace can be further customized through the Open API provided by NetSpace or through customization and consulting services offered by NetSpace or its service providers. The Open API is the core of the system, providing for customization through Visual Basic, MDL, Visual C++, or C programming languages.

ESpace and GSpace employ MicroStation GeoGraphic’s map management capabilities for data management and are upwardly compatible with ModelServer Continuum for customers who want to take advantage of its ability to manage long transactions. ModelServer Continuum manages the engineering information transactions between a corporate RDBMS warehouse and users, providing seamless online facility management and network analysis and operations. Utilizing Bentley’s Engineering Back Office three-tier client/server architecture, ModelServer Continuum and NetSpace technologies establish collaboration between engineering and the IT infrastructure.

"Today, utilities companies demand better integration of existing engineering, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and corporate information - with easy access," said Andrew Coe, founding president of NetSpace. "NetSpace’s mission is to bring these islands of engineering automation into the corporate mainstream, making engineering information widely available via corporate intranets and the Internet using common browsers."

Greg Bentley, president of Bentley Systems, said, "Of all the industries involved in geoengineering, the utilities sector — where MicroStation is used by over 25,000 users worldwide — arguably has the most critical need for solutions that break barriers between GIS, engineering, and corporate IT data stores."

Russell S. Kauffman, PLS, principal GIS engineer with the Public Service Electric & Gas Company, said, "Utilities are facing a confusing and uncertain future as they transition into a deregulated environment. As a result, the worlds of computer-aided design, GIS, AM/FM, and mapping must unite to address core competencies and processes."

Summing It All Up

Bentley’s geoengineering products accommodate an ever-greater multitude of applications, platforms, operating systems, development tools, and databases. Bentley’s products and services are also appealing to a much bigger community of both geoengineering users and developers, bringing them into the bigger enterprise information technology fold.

It would be easy for Bentley to sit back and rest on its laurels since its products are truly productive and "open" when compared to those of many of its competitors. We feel that a major portion of the company’s focus today should be to more aggressively encourage the user community to implement its currently available technologies and products.

Bentley stands out as a vendor by perceiving that there are needs facing its customers that cannot be met with the traditional software products being sold today by most other vendors. In particular, the current crop of Bentley geoengineering packages should be more heavily aimed at contributing to both an individual practitioner’s or a larger group’s collaborative productivity.

Until recently, concurrent and collaborative engineering techniques were largely confined to manufacturing environments where processes were vastly improved by bringing together diverse team groups to share ideas, information and the resulting successes. As we approach the next millennium, we feel that geoengineering will enjoy comparable results — and Bentley Systems will be benefit from its significant contributions to the field of geoengineering.