Drilling down

When the British Geological Survey decided it needed a database management system it found that an intranet created a common look and feel across the...

When the British Geological Survey decided it needed a database management system it found that an intranet created a common look and feel across the entire organisation as well as allowing the central control of data. Marcia Mcleod reports

Anyone who drills a hole more than 30 metres deep anywhere in Great Britain is obliged, by law, to submit the resulting data to the British Geological Survey - and has been since 1865. Add to this the data produced by the BGS's 500 or so scientists and it is easy to see why data management has become a board issue.

"Data is our primary resource," emphasises Peter Robson, database administrator of the Geospatial Information Systems Group. "It is essential for the survival of the BGS that links between staff and data be facilitated as much as possible."

Data includes information on rock samples, boreholes both on and offshore, geophysical and geomagnetic surveys. It pinpoints locations of gas, oil and mineral deposits, contamination sites and potential subsidence.

Since 1984, the BGS has gone through four different data management systems to try to ensure it can share and manage data coherently, each taking advantage of new technology. To begin with, a database management system revolutionised the BGS's use of data, allowing the organisation to identify and share common elements, control redundancy and obtain the added value of a corporate view of data. But staff needed thorough training to use it and access was through glass screens rather than PCs.

This set-up was swiftly followed by a Vax processor, Oracle databases with SQL user interface, and a client/server system was introduced in 1990. Oracle running on Vax was retained, but PCs with SQL at desktop level replaced glass terminals and Microsoft's Access desktop database was added.

Microsoft Access proved to be what Robson calls "the Trojan horse". BGS is not the first company to discover that as employees realise they can hold data on their desktop, they can hide information away from colleagues and remove it from corporate view. Secrecy spells disaster for an organisation as dependent on its data as the BGS - management had to persuade people to put data on the network.

Throughout the organisation's progress through these data management systems, moving data between platforms presented no problem. The biggest challenge was the readjustment of the user interface to each new environment.

By 1995, the BGS had seen Mosaic, the forerunner to Netscape, and knew immediately that this was the way it had to go. Robson and his colleagues recognised that an intranet, even in its embryonic stages, would let the BGS have a common look and feel across the entire organisation and allow central control of data.

After looking for a prototype system that used the browser as a universal interface, the BGS came up with a combination of Netscape, Windows 3.2 and Visual Basic - now based on Sun Solaris - to give employees the feel of the Web and re-introduce a menu-driven interface.

Once the organisation decided to expand its Web-based R&D activities, the BGS data management project set up a subcommittee to develop a specification, research the market and identify suitable products. Headed by Robson, the six-person subcommittee was drawn from various parts of the organisation, each with his or her own technical and business skills. The librarian, for example, had good text retrieval skills; another member was a C++ programmer and a third was experienced in Microsoft Access.

Criteria for a full-blown intranet included connectivity to Oracle, platform and browser independence, support for SQL at command level, and Java compatibility. Four products were shortlisted: Cold Fusion, NetDB, SilverStream and Tango.

These four were passed to the BGS computer management group. All had benefits, but two factors made the BGS sit back - the market had moved on since it first began evaluating potential solutions and the organisation decided to refine its criteria.

The BGS is still evaluating the four shortlisted products, each being used in a different part of the organisation to see what fits where. It may be that no single product is chosen for overall corporate use.

Whichever route is finally taken, the BGS knows it will have done everything it can to ensure the best possible infrastructure for sharing and managing data. "The project has been properly funded in terms of staff and money," says Robson. "The BGS's priority is to facilitate data access within the organisation. The board recognises the need to maximise the use of data across all areas."

Sharing data between the BGS's Nottingham headquarters and Edinburgh, Exeter and London offices is easy too, using the national academic network Janet. Now the BGS believes that its work on its intranet will help its use of the Internet and development of extranets. The BGS is unlikely ever to simply sell its information online - customers buy the BGS's scientific expertise, its analysis and interpretation of data, as much as the data itself. However, it can market itself and provide electronic links to scientists for surveyors, estate agents and government departments, such as environment, transport and energy, which need the sort of data the BGS keeps.

In addition, by testing and reviewing services on the intranet before offering them to the outside world, the BGS can be sure its online product is as rock solid as the data itself.

The British Geological Survey

The BGS holds and interprets scientific data concerning the earth's crust, both on and off Britain's shores. Data is gathered from a number of sources - from mining and construction companies and any other that bores or drills holes deeper than 30 metres.

It has 700 staff, around 500 of them scientists, who use the data to report on the condition of any particular area - for example, whether it is tainted by previous contamination, liable to subsidence, rich in minerals, and so on. Data is used primarily by government, but also by commercial companies such as surveyors and estate agents.

Sun Solaris is used as a standalone file server, NT as the Web application server, and SQL Net across the Lan. Oracle fulfils networking and database requirements. The company's four sites in Nottingham, Edinburgh, Exeter and London are linked by the national academic system, Janet.

Lessons learnt

Peter Robson, head of the project team set up to review intranet software, emphasises that both board commitment and user involvement are crucial to the success of any IT project. "You must get user feedback at all stages," he says.

He also became aware of how fluid the technology is. Every time one solution was implemented, the market developed another which could work even better.

For BGS, intranet technology has proved the most efficient way to share data. Robson believes Oracle was worth having because of the number of applications written for it.

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