Thursday, March 29, 2007

Gartner: GE Energy Plans Applications on Oracle Spatial Instead of on Smallworld GIS

The IT analysis and consulting firm Gartner has recently published a report titled GE Energy Plans Applications on Oracle Spatial Instead of on Smallworld GIS. You can find it here.

Accessing Smallworld data in Oracle without the Official GE Oracle Solution Suite

Through this article I hope to describe a way in which you can access Smallworld data in Oracle without using any of the components of the official GE Oracle Solution Suite.

A comment by Anonymous got me thinking about Smallworld SQL Server. Not to be confused with Microsoft's SQL Server database, Smallworld SQL Server is Magik code that creates a Magik server image that provides access for external applications into the Smallworld VMDS database.

If you open the Smallworld Help Documentation and search for...
  • "sql server" (in SW 4.0 help)
  • "22 sql server" (in SW 3.21 help)

... you will be taken to a link that provides answers to Frequently Asked Questions.

A description of SQL Server in the 4.0 help documentation states...
Essentially the Smallworld SQL Server provides remote access to a Smallworld database from Windows-based clients. Using the SQL Server and a suitable ODBC-enabled application, you can quickly and easily access all the data within a Smallworld database on a remote machine from a Windows-based PC.
Once you have set up a SQL Server image on a machine, you can install the Smallworld-supplied ODBC client driver on any machine in your network. As part of the configuration for that ODBC driver, you specify the host name and port of the SQL server image's machine. Then, you can view Smallworld data using any 3rd party tool that can read ODBC data sources.

That means that you can use other programming languages to get at Smallworld data and you can also use applications like Excel to read Smallworld data.

A couple of months ago I helped a client set up SQL Server and the way we tested it initially was to use Excel to read in data from Smallworld VMDS using the Excel "Import External Data" feature. Very cool, in my opinion.

And that leads me into the next piece of the "Smallworld Data in Oracle" puzzle. Did you know that you can configure Oracle to read external data as though that data actually resided in Oracle? That functionality is called Oracle Heterogeneous Services. Basically you can use that to access non-Oracle systems from the Oracle database server. One of the non-Oracle systems that are supported by this feature ODBC data sources. You can probably see where I am going with this:
  • use Smallworld's SQL Server to serve up data readable by an ODBC client driver
  • use Oracle Heterogeneous Services to make it seem to Oracle and your other applications that the Smallworld data resides in Oracle

Once you have the Oracle Heterogeneous Services configured, then all the tools you have available to you to process Oracle data are automatically available to you to process Smallworld VMDS data.

Performance issues
It is likely that anything served up by a Magik server image may be slower than your external applications expect. One way around this is for your Oracle techies to create their own VMDS/Oracle table synchronization application. Now that they have all the VMDS data available to Oracle tools, they can use the programming tools they are familiar with to update native Oracle tables with data from the ODBC-sourced Oracle tables.

Ideally you would not want to have two tables with the same data, but you might need to do some kind of synchronization to improve performance. The good news is that whoever writes the synchronization function will not need any Magik knowledge.

Smallworld SQL Server does not serve up geometry data types. But if it is configured correctly it can serve up geometry coordinates which could be passed through the ODBC mechanism to Oracle. The Smallworld help documentation describes how to expose coordinates to the ODBC client.

Based on my customer interaction over the years, this technology does not seem widely known or used. I am not sure about the licensing requirements, but Anonymous suggested that the price might be considered expensive. I would suggest that if you are interested in this technology you could probably arrange a "try-before-you-buy" license with GE before paying anything for it.

I have limited experience with this configuration so I am curious to hear from anyone that has tried (or would be willing to try) this configuration. It seems that it holds some promise. I am interested to hear about performance issues and how easy it is to set up this scenario.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

questions on the limitations of new GE Product on Oracle/Java

(For some reason the RSS feed does not show comment updates, so I wanted to respond to a comment in a new post.)

ninjacodemonkey had some comments on my original article about VMDS/Magik versus Oracle/Java that beg some questions. The comment ends with "Of course, this does depend on GE's willingness and ability to support two competing product lines. Obsolescence is a two-way street my friend."

Questions I have for GE:
  • do you intend to support both Oracle and VMDS product lines into the future? I have heard some unofficial comments about continued investment in the VMDS product line into the future. Could GE communicate how much they plan to invest in Magik/VMDS in the next 5-10 years. Clearly the level of investment would indicate GE's commitment to both both product lines.
  • I am at a bit of a disadvantage in that I was not at GITA 30. Were any readers of this blog at the conference and did any of you hear any communication from GE about investment in existing and new products on VMDS/Magik? I am interested in your comments.

Questions I have for ninjacodemonkey:
  • you state "It [GE's Oracle technology] appears to be a far less functional, less flexible and lower performing application." At the risk of making this sound like a college exam question...
    • can you give an example of less functional
    • can you give an example of less flexible
    • can you give an example of lower performing
  • "mediocrity of Java"
    • Why should customers choose the "proprietariness of Magik" over the "mediocrity of Java"? I think Pedro and Tom have some valid concerns about the cost of Magik developers compared to Java developers. Do you think overcoming the "mediocrity of Java" is worth the extra cost of acquiring Magik skills?
  • It seems to me, though, that some customers might actually benefit from the Oracle/Java product. Can you think of any customer profile that would realize benefits with the new product line?
  • Finally, what do you mean by "Obsolescence is a two-way street my friend."?
Those are my questions for the day. As always I welcome all opinions whether from ninjacodemonkey, stylechimp, casechimp, or any other form of primate.

Monday, March 26, 2007

talk to me GE

If you were able to attend GITA 30, you would have likely heard the announcement "GE Energy to Introduce New Oracle-Based Product Portfolio for Electric Disturbition Utilities" (be sure to read the comments for this article). It is also likely that if you had any questions and concerns at that meeting that there would have been plenty of GE representatives there to answer your questions and assuage your concerns. It sounds to me that GE had a consistent message that they were able to get out to the attendees.

If you were not able to attend GITA 30 it is likely that you now have more questions than answers about this strategic announcement by GE. I was unable to attend GITA so I count myself in that group of under informed Smallworld users/partners. If this year's attendance was any indication, then I imagine that many others in the Smallworld community were also not able to make use of the direct interaction with GE representatives to have their questions/concerns heard. And GITA attendance is largely from the Western Hemisphere. European, Asian and African Smallworld community members would have had even less chance to get their questions answered.

I suspect that this year's Smallworld Users Conferences will be dominated by presentations on this new architecture (and hopefully demonstrations), but it seems like a long time to wait until September/October to have our questions answered.

Maybe GE would consider some of the following communication options:
  • press release
  • send a more detailed note out to all Smallworld users/partners
    • Smallworld Helpdesk has a fairly efficient mechanism in the SupportCentral site to send out blanket e-mails to all users. Use this feature to give a more-detailed-than-the-press-release announcement to the Smallworld community
  • Online forum
    • I understand that there might be concerns about making information available on an uncontrolled list, so extend the Global Customer Forums (see On-line Smallworld resources (closed and open)) to include a forum where customers/partners are invited to post any questions they have about the new product.
    • Commit to having GE management/technical staff answer each post in a timely manner.
  • FAQ
    • As the questions start coming in to GE as phone calls and e-mails, compile a list of Frequently Asked Questions and post them in the forum.
  • online demonstrations
    • provide WebEx demonstrations of a more technical nature where we can see how the new tools are supposed to work.
Most importantly, please talk to us sooner than later. It would be helpful even to send out a note (another press release, maybe) that indicates dates and types of information will be made available. For example "GE will have a new customer forum opened by April 1", etc...

As always, I welcome readers' comments. In particular, I am interested in what kind of communication you would find helpful to address your questions or concerns about this new "non-GIS" spatial product announcement by GE.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

How to create Smallworld Competitors

I think I might hammer the open source / public license idea a bit more. Hopefully the more we do this the more likely that we might actually get a response from GE. I have tried to get some responses from GE about their official view of open source or public license as it pertains to Smallworld but my requests have vanished into the e-mail ether.

Here are some ideas that I would like to see GE address:

  • open source any modules that will provide easier access for external systems to query/manipulate data in the VMDS database.

    A recent comment to one of my articles suggested doing this for Smallworld's SQL Server product. This is a tool that allows Windows applications to see Smallworld VMDS data as ODBC data sources. I think this functionality would be a great candidate for open source by GE. I think taking that action could reenergize the Smallworld user base and show real commitment by GE to address customer concerns about lack of access to VMDS data.

    The pertinent questions I think are: what would it hurt GE to open source SQL Server? What would it benefit GE to open source SQL Server? I cannot think of any real negative impacts to these actions. As the Anonymous commenter suggested, not many customers use the Smallworld SQL Server product anyways.

    Opening/Freeing that product could spur innovation in open access to VMDS and may actually provide a positive benefit to customers in a short time frame.
  • There is a great article at Ask The Wizard called Creating Competitors. "Ask the Wizard" is a blog run by FeedBurner CEO Dick Costolo.

    GE's CEO Jeff Immelt stresses learning as a key to success in today's dynamic world. I would recommend the Creating Competitors article to the Smallworld managers as an article that at least gives them some ideas about how someone has built a successful software organization in today's dynamic world.

    Here are some key points from that article:
    • Provide an open API
      • even if you control your core code, providing an open API into your system will spur innovation.
        • I think that Smallworld is already doing this with products such as Smallworld Automation and the new Service Oriented Architecture and Internet Application Server. But it would not hurt to review whether these are the types of APIs that will allow others to build on your product and not on your competitors product. I would also not hurt to make these open API mechanisms more widely known to current and potential Smallworld customers.
    • Provide a free version of your software
      • people will always want a free version of something. If you don't have one, they will get it from your competitor. Who do you think they will look to when they are ready for an upgrade?
        • I do not know of a free version for Smallworld, but it might be worth pursuing something like that. I seem to remember a few years ago GE handed out demo CD's of Smallworld that actually installed Smallworld on your computer with an easy install wizard interface and then let you work on the Cambridge demo database.
        • Maybe once GE officially moves to Oracle/Java architecture, they could make the VMDS/Magik architecture the free version. VMDS is very portable and could be easily licensed for free use. Compare this to trying to license Oracle for free use.
These are my thoughts. I acknowledge that I do not have the responsibility nor knowledge to run a large organization such as GE Energy's Smallworld group. I am sure that the people that do that are making the best decisions they can in each situation. What I am trying to initiate with this article is a public discussion about how to continue to make Smallworld thrive in a changing market place. Until GE enters this public discussion, I am afraid these posts may sound more like monologues than the multilateral conversations that I hope for.

As always I would love to hear reader comments to anything I post.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Recent Smallworld Highlights

I found some interesting links on the GE Energy Geospatial Asset Management page.

  • An official view from GE on the outlook of the GIS industry in 2007.
  • Cambridge office holding an Open Day. I am curious about what an "Open Day" is. The flyer does not give too many details. Anyone in the UK or Ireland attending and willing to report on it afterwards?
  • I'm always interested in hearing about large companies that see Smallworld as the best solution for them. Find out more by reading a GE Energy executive interview with Dr.-Ing. Andreas Bordonetti, Head of Power Distribution, Azienda Energetica S.p.A.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Cutting out the GIS Middleman

As the days roll on from the original GE announcement to move to a 100% Oracle/Java solution, more details are slowly trickling in.

Directions Magazine has an article (Cutting Out the GIS Middleman: GE Energy Cements Relationship with Oracle to Build Enterprise Applications) that sheds some more light on GE's direction.

It seems to me that GE is trying to leap-frog over some of its GIS competitors who have used Oracle in the past but used it in a proprietary fashion.

[Updated: 11:46 am 15March07... I did not know that Oracle ships with landbase data. Have a look at]

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

All Points Blog podcast on GE/Smallworld/Java/Oracle

There is a podcast put out by the editors of that includes two stories from last week's GITA 30 in San Antonio, Texas, USA. The second of the two stories is an editorial on GE's announcement to move to a Java/Oracle architecture.

The podcast page is here. If you click on "Listen Now" you will have to wait until about 60% through the podcast to get to the editorial on GE. The story does not tell me too much new, but it is interesting to get a point of view from people that are not necessarily directly involved in the Smallworld community.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

North American Daylight Saving Time

(Thank you to everyone that posted comments in response to the announcement that GE will be introducing a new version of Smallworld on Oracle/Java.)

I'm not sure about Mexico, but Canada and USA switched to Daylight Saving Time on March 11. If your Smallworld system times are off by an hour, please read "USA/Canada Daylight Saving Time is 4 weeks longer this year. Are you ready?"

You can tell if you have the appropriate Smallworld patch loaded by executing the following command at the Magik prompt.

MagikSF> date_time_now()

If the date and time are different than you expect, it is likely that your patch has not been loaded.

An e-mail from the Smallworld helpdesk also mentioned that the most recent time zone patches include adjustments for Western Australia.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

goodbye VMDS/Magik, hello Oracle/Java?

Well, not quite.

Earlier this week, GE issued a press release "GE Energy to Introduce New Oracle-Based Product Portfolio for Electric Disturbition Utilities". I had heard rumblings of such an announcement in the days leading up to the release and was very anxious to understand what GE Energy would be announcing.

At first glance, this announcement seems to suggest another significant paradigm shift in the Smallworld application. The most recent significant paradigm shift was the move to the Smallworld Application Framework (SWAF). Some customers are still preparing for the SWAF upgrade. To be faced with an announcement like this (Smallworld on Oracle/Java) might come as a bit of a shock. But if you read the press release carefully, you will see that this announcement is geared to small- and mid-sized electric utility companies.

If you are a larger utility company that has invested considerably in VMDS and Magik technology, Bob Gilligan states that this new product line will complement the current Smallworld offerings. I find it significant that Mr. Gilligan used "complement" and not "replace".

Clearly GE Energy needs to grow more license sales and it seems to me that offering Smallworld in an Oracle/Java environment will make the sale more appealing to smaller users who do not have the resources to commit to learning another database and programming language. Having said that, I suspect that as some of the mid-sized utilities start asking the Oracle/Java application to do greater and greater things (especially around long transaction management and customising the data model), it might be a more natural step to direct them to VMDS/Magik. I think VMDS/Magik will go away at GE Energy's peril. I am of the opinion that the current VMDS/Magik package provides better solutions for some of the Smallworld user's business requirements than Oracle/Java is capable of.

GE Energy may spend more energy developing the Oracle/Java side of things because that is where the revenue growth may be, but I would strongly urge them to continue to support VMDS/Magik either directly or via some Open Source framework so that the Smallworld user community can service it.

I have included some highlights (with my comments) of the press release.
I have formatted direct quotes from the press release in Georgia font. All other comments are mine.

The highlights of the announcement include:
  • GE Energy is collaborating with Oracle to expand GE’s geospatial product portfolio by developing a network design and maintenance application based on Oracle® Database 10g, Oracle Spatial 10g and Oracle Fusion Middleware.
  • This solution is designed specifically to meet the needs of the small- to mid-size North American electric distribution market.
    • One can take a half-full or half-empty view of this press release. The statement above makes me lean towards the half-full view. It seems that GE Energy is trying to increase its market share and trying to offer something that the smaller utilities are asking for. My half-full view continues when I realize that there are opportunities in this approach for current Smallworld customers. Let's say your large utility acquires a small- to mid-size utility. Would you rather integrate your GIS system with another Smallworld platform or with an entirely different GIS vendor? I think that any move that keeps Smallworld viable in the market place and does not take away the product that already works for current customers can only be good for the entire Smallworld user community.
  • GE Energy has been working with selected customers in the development of the application and expects beta testing to commence later this year.
    • I'm looking forward to seeing how beta testing goes.
  • As a result, companies increasingly seek products to meet their needs with minimum customization, ease of install/upgrade and low maintenance.
  • said Bob Gilligan, general manager of GE Energy’s transmission and distribution business. “Our new approach will complement our current offerings and result in products that leverage Oracle’s spatial software."
  • GE Energy’s Smallworld Core Spatial Technology* remains a key technology for large utilities and telecommunications customers with complex solution needs. No existing products will be retired as a result of this new offering. The addition of applications based on Oracle Spatial will provide more options for companies with specific IT requirements.
    • This is an important statement that no existing products will be retired. I think it is very important that GE Energy repeat that statement until it becomes very clear to all of its current customers. I have frozen this statement in time as a PDF file. In my view this is a very import statement and I will do what I can to hold GE Energy to it.

What is not included in the announcement:
  • VMDS/Magik will be retired.
    • Actually, the press release states the current CST will continue to exist for customers with complex networks.
      • GE Energy’s Smallworld Core Spatial Technology* remains a key technology for large utilities and telecommunications customers with complex solution needs. No existing products will be retired as a result of this new offering.

I would be interested in your comments.