Browse before you dig

Browse before you dig

Cable connections sought with online maps for telco engineers.

By Mark Chillingworth

Customers looking to sign up to the Optus telecommunications cable network will have their request assessed and their location found on new Web based MapXtreme system installed by Optus.

The Engineering Information Systems (EIS) Group within Optus has moved its mapping away from a desktop Unix based system to a Web-based system. The EIS division is part of Optus' transmission group of engineers, geographers and surveyors. A new system was required to enable these end users to access geographical information systems (GIS) data from the company intranet.

MapInfo won the contract with its MapXtreme application. Users can access maps from anywhere on the Optus internal network. A single server provides Optus offices across Australia with GIS information.

"Being Web-based, MapXtreme is far more cost-effective than rolling out more desktop software," said Grant Bowden, director of network development at Optus. He said that their decision was helped by the fact that the organisation already has a number of other MapInfo products operating, and they are impressed with their solid and reliable performance.

MapXtreme is available to 300 desktop users who can locate and download maps via a browser. These maps are held on a single server. The previous system required maps to be stored on 16 different servers throughout Australia. According to Mr Bowden, choosing MapXtreme was a platform decision.

"It provides complete Web enablement, unlike a lot of other products in the marketplace, and this was very important to us," he said. "The predominant datasets were all available in MapInfo format, plus we needed search engine technology provided by MapInfo's Geoloc/MapMarker software. We also needed a Windows NT server platform and to be able support Macintoshes and PCs at the desktop."

The six month installation of MapXtreme did come across minor issues concerning Netscape and Internet Explorer. Deployment was split in two, with the first phase aiming to deliver the GIS Mode of Operation, Service Qualifications tool to evaluate exactly where a customer could be connected to a fibre optic cable and other Optus networks.

"It proved invaluable as we hadn't previously used such sophisticated tools to assess customer connections," said Mr Bowden.

The second phase, based on the GIS Mode of Operation Fibre Locator tool, is used for asset and network protection. It integrates the Dial Before You Dig service, a hotline which currently receives over a thousand inquiries per week from diggers making sure they aren't going to put their shovels through any cables.

"Now, we can make a thorough review by looking at a Web browser mapping interface which is divided into two parts. One half shows a colour map and the other half is text describing the customer's location and their proximity to the fibre optic network. The user now has a choice. They can either interpret the graphical findings on the map or refer to the written data," said Mr Bowden.

"We can read data, assess the work and determine whether it is dangerously near to the Optus network or not. We can also fax customers with a map showing these details. Most enquiries are now answered on the same day."

The system can read information via emails from the One Call service and store details, such as customer location and the map, in an Oracle 8i database. MapInfo's Geoloc/MapMarker software is then used to find out the customer's geographic location, and cross-check against other references, according to Mr Bowden.

"For example, the system can consult the street directory grid reference and find out whether it is valid for that location and if not, it is then manually checked. These days the majority of jobs can be automatically cross-checked and processed," he said. Mr Bowden said that the server has been well utilised, as it now contains more than 100 map layers, such as network routes, coverage, towers and street names.

"It redraws the map from scratch, and any of these layers can be redrawn on the screen. It takes up to 50 concurrent users on the server just seconds to bring up a map and zoom in and out to see the detail without impacting other users," he said.Initially, there was some concern about the amount of data Optus wanted to transfer along with the maps.

"We can produce complex maps with only 30 to 50 kilobytes for each image sent to the user. In the past we had to send the whole data file across the network, but now we can send map snapshots. There is no longer any performance degradation because they do not require a lot of bandwidth," he said.

The maps are now available to the engineers as emails, a Web page or a GIF image, and some Optus partners have been accessing the system.

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