Mapping out the distributed future

29 Dec 2009

Despite a 185-year pedigree, Ordnance Survey Ireland is at the cutting edge of tying together complex database, sat nav and enterprise IT systems, its CIO Colin Bray tells GORDON SMITH.

Few organisations have a history to match Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSI), an organisation that dates back to 1824. It’s also a safe bet that few have been as pioneering in their use of technology in the intervening 185 years.

OSI has been using digital cameras since the Eighties and, more recently, has been using LiDAR, a form of laser for plotting the height of land and objects. The Nineties saw further innovation with digital photo-grammetry, a sophisticated image-modelling technique for plotting maps in a digital environment. By the end of the decade, OSI was one of the largest civilian users of that technology in the world.

It’s also one of the largest consumers of data storage in the State. The detail needed to create its various mapping products currently runs to more than 220 terabytes of information, housed at OSI’s leafy headquarters in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. Parts of the network onsite are up to a gigabit in speed to cope with the large volumes of data involved.

With the agency heading for 200 years in existence, maps have never been more relevant. Services such as Google Maps, Micro-soft Virtual Earth and car satnav systems have put location information in the palm of consumers’ hands. As the designated natio-nal mapping agency for Ireland, OSI is keen not to get left behind and has ambitious plans to make its extensive data resources more easily available to businesses and consumers.

Bray head

Colin Bray is tasked with supporting this change through technology, and driving it where necessary. It’s telling that his role is referred to as chief technology officer (CTO) rather than chief information officer. “The CTO role is very important at OSI because really you’re involved in developing and driving the business strategy. I’m one of six on the senior management team; one of five general managers who report to the CEO,” Bray explains.

A chartered surveyor by profession, Bray is an 11-year veteran of OSI and has held his current role since 2006. He puts forward his philosophy very simply: “I see technology as an enabler to the business strategy and the user requirements. It’s not technology for technology’s sake; that isn’t where we’re coming from. Part of my role is to know the business inside out, but also to understand and appreciate the technologies that are out there and emerging,” he says. 

Bray is responsible for three distinct departments within OSI, running a staff of around 75 people. The three areas are: IT itself; mapping technology, and data strategy and development – how OSI’s assets, or maps, are collected, stored and maintained in line with industry best practice.

As debate continues about whether technology leaders in organisations need to be steeped in IT or more familiar with business concerns, Bray comes down on the side of the latter. “Maybe I have some advantage in being a chartered surveyor in a national mapping agency who’s also interested in technology,” he offers.

In other words, that interest in technology doesn’t extend to poring over the minutiae of software code or being up to speed with the latest development in SANs; Bray doesn’t believe that’s necessary for the role. “I think you need to be familiar with the technology; that’s obviously a key part of the job. But being over-familiar with the detail? No. I think you have to rely on your staff who have areas of expertise and knowledge. I think of utmost importance is the understanding of the business and the business requirements,” he says.

“The CTO role is a business technologist who is trying to implement, direct and develop business strategy for efficiencies, for product development and who is taking advantage of the technology that’s out there and having the correct staff who can get down into micro levels of technology awareness. From a CTO point of view, it’s a high-level awareness, but being very much aware of the implications of change and bringing it down to the business side – what it is going to cost to implement and what is the pay-off?”

Customers, costs, clusters and clouds

Since becoming a state body in 2002, the OSI’s culture has shifted to being one with a strong customer focus and Bray is always mindful of this when assessing a particular technology’s fitness for purpose. “Where we would be fairly strong is on customer interaction and needs assessment. We find the appropriate solution to fulfil the requirements of the need, with an emphasis on cost-benefit analysis and ensuring return on investment,” he says. 

At the same time, OSI also has to reduce its reliance on state funding and there is a strong emphasis on cutting unnecessary costs. Technology has contributed to this ethos, but when he talks about creating efficiencies, Bray is equally at home discussing the likes of server virtualisation as smart use of global positioning systems (GPS) for gathering the data it needs to produce its mapping products.

OSI has a network of 16 GPS stations around Ireland continuously recording and streaming data from GPS satellites back to the agency’s centre in the Phoenix Park in Dublin. That information is then processed in real time. “Traditionally, getting those sorts of accuracies out in the field would have needed two people carrying out GPS activities. Now, because we’re providing a live, real-time positioning service, we’ve cut that need in half, which is really adding to efficiencies,” Bray explains.

Where traditional IT is concerned, there are plenty of cost-saving initiatives to choose from at OSI: it has 107 physical servers – 88 at headquarters and 19 in its regional offices. “We have 37 virtual servers comprised of 20 production virtual servers, nine test virtual e-commerce servers and eight test IT virtual servers, and we are continuing the virtualisation process where we can get economies of scale,” says Bray.

OSI also uses the Condor distributed computing operating system to run 10 standard PCs in a cluster. This means the organisation can take advantage of improved performance for processor-intensive tasks such as producing ortho-rectified imagery, which mathematically corrects distortions from camera angles when the mapping data has been captured. There are certain activities that may have taken many hours and slowed down the network that can now be done overnight. There’s a commercial advantage to running this technology, since it allows OSI to turn the raw data into products faster.

At the start of the year OSI implemented Oracle real application clustering (RAC) technology to consolidate its databases into one location, managed by a central Oracle server. As well as lowering management overheads, this also reduced the amount of Oracle licences OSI needs. “That really is a cost-effective exercise,” Bray points out. “We didn’t put in RAC because it was a good idea to do it; we put in RAC because it made sense to us from a financial standpoint and a maintenance-efficiency standpoint.”

As a rule, Bray keeps a close eye on all software licence costs to strip out any unnecessary spending. “We have asset management software, so we know who’s using software for how long, and if there isn’t a compelling argument to hold on to that licence, we recycle it. It’s the same with the hardware – if someone has a laptop, that’s what they use,” he says. “We have about 320 staff using a combination of desktops and laptops – if you have a laptop you get a docking station.”

Under a framework agreement signed last year, OSI chose Dell as its supplier for servers, PCs and laptops. That too has resulted in cost savings, since the Optiplex 755 desktops offer 50pc less power consumption than previous versions, according to Bray. OSI is also working with the Office of Public Works on an ongoing energy monitoring programme. Server virtualisation and the use of Oracle RAC tie into this initiative, he says. “If you can reduce the amount of hardware and the heat that it’s producing, then this is really enforcing your green agenda,” Bray suggests. This isn’t just about scoring points for good corporate citizenship, however. “The organisation believes in it, but it’s not green for green’s sake. The green agenda is within our cost-benefit thinking.”

Finding the middle ground between interesting technologies and cost cutting is one of the challenges of the role. OSI was one of the first users of digital cameras back in the Eighties and has already made extensive use of virtualisation. Cloud computing may be the IT industry’s latest object of affection – and Bray acknowledges its potential is “very exciting” – but he offers reasoned thinking why he won’t be rushed into making any decision.

“We’re looking at the cloud to see if it has a role for OSI in cost and operational efficiencies. A lot of our data holdings, such as our height database and image database, are very volume-intensive – some of our products are up to a quarter of a terabyte. There are great efficiencies to be had by interacting with the cloud, but I don’t think getting those volumes of data onto the cloud is a simple exercise. That is probably reinforced if you are doing revisions of products like we do rather than a one-off product. There is a role for it in OSI going forward, but we need to finish our evaluation of it. It is a new technology and all technologies have teething problems,” he suggests.

Prime time

OSI has a commercial remit to make money and that means constantly looking at new products to bring to the market. With that in mind, a major project for the months ahead is OSI’s data re-engineering initiative, dubbed ‘Prime 2’. Until now, OSI’s major data holdings, such as spatial information, digital landscape models, a height database and raw photos, have remained separate. Prime 2 will integrate all of these data types into one location and put all of the intelligence into a single instance.

“No matter what we do, the customer is ultimately going to see it, either in a better quality of product or one that comes quicker to market, or an enhanced product or a new one,” Bray explains. “That really is going to be one of the biggest projects from a positive standpoint for the customer and that, in essence, is why we’re doing it. We’re trying to make our data more intelligent, easier to use, easier to access and make that data easier to integrate with users’ own data and business processes.”

It’s a large, complex undertaking and this is reflected in the painstaking process to arrive at this point. OSI used the ‘competitive dialogue’ process within public procurement, initially discussing the scope of the project with several potential suppliers. From there, OSI worked with a number of these vendors to develop prototypes and evaluate the prototypes along with the proposed documentation. OSI then chose a preferred supplier and has been collaborating with this company to refine the prototype. With the final, seven-figure contract some months away from being signed, Bray cannot reveal the identity of the vendor.

“This is a belt-and-braces job, but you really do not want to make a mistake on this,” he comments. “Rather than an IT project, this is a data project, about data integrity and robustness. We’re going to be working on the new prototype for the next six months to test that it works with all our internal and production systems. Following that exercise, we will then be in a position to sign a contract and that contract will take a year to implement,” says Bray. “This is about risk management and ensuring this project absolutely does not fail – and it won’t. We can ensure that by proving that it works in all instances.

“We’re running that prototype with customers and key account holders as well, and also testing it with all of our current applications.”

Prime 2, he adds, is compatible with the CityGML 3D standard and it will include height data from its LiDAR systems to be able to accurately portray building shapes, which is essential for meeting OSI’s next major challenge: creating landscapes in 3D. “We went from paper maps to digital maps. We went from digital maps to spatial databases. Now we’re going from spatial databases to 3D realities,” comments Bray. “Change is normal – we’re looking to see what’s next and be part of what’s next.”

By Gordon Smith

Photo: Colin Bray, chief technology officer at Ordnance Survey Ireland.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic