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August 1999

Information technology: Where do we stand?


How to make your voice heard
Key points from the IT Strategic Plan
Get up to speed on desktop issues with DSAC sessions

Computer upgrades. Enormous data sets. New software. Ubiquitous networking at unprecedented speeds. Each year brings more-complex applications and more systems to interface. At UCAR, our division- and program-centered culture has produced a multitude of approaches to information technology (IT). Not all of them are compatible, though. How do we learn from each other and make sure our machines and programs can talk to each other?

In September 1997 UCAR held a pivotal workshop, organized by UOP's Information Infrastructure Technology and Applications (IITA) program, to consider institution-wide issues surrounding present and anticipated advances in IT at UCAR. As a result, the Information Technology Council was formed and a strategic plan developed ( UCAR Information Technology Strategic Plan ; see highlights in the sidebar .) Below is an update on some of the topics addressed by the IT plan.

Can standards and autonomy coexist?

Peter Fox. (Photos by Carlye Calvin.)

"UCAR is a pretty diverse organization with regard to IT. We developed the strategic plan to reflect that diversity as much as possible," says Peter Fox. Peter, chief computational scientist for HAO, led part of the 1997 workshop, which brought 120 staff together to discuss IT. Afterward, he and fellow members of the IT Council developed the IT Strategic Plan.

"There are a lot of things happening that reflect suggestions in the strategic plan, but it's going to take a while for some of those to become visible," says Peter. "One goal of the IT Council was to identify needs in high-visibility areas like e-mail, desktop systems, the Web, and a few others. People should be seeing changes in those things over the next few months."

For example, following a recent survey of UCAR's Web site users, the top-level pages of the site are now being redesigned in an effort headed by Susan Friberg (Corporate Affairs). The goal is to produce a more consistent look and feel and to make the site easier for users to navigate. Next will come "a very strong effort to coordinate and systematize the indexing and searching capabilities for the entire Web site, not just the [front pages]," says Peter.

The new site is expected to debut toward the end of this summer. According to Susan, "The redesign is just the first step to help the user find information more easily at UCAR, NCAR, and UOP. The survey told us that a good search engine is sorely needed, as well as a site map and more sophisticated and helpful data and software sites. There's a lot of work ahead to respond to user needs."

E-mail is another area where IT strategy will be making a difference. Until very recently, attachments to e-mail were handled inconsistently by different mail readers, even within the institution. Soon, according to Peter, "You're going to be able to exchange a wider variety of documents more transparently. This will happen largely through changes at the server level, but also by having e-mail clients conform to open standards rather than proprietary standards."

Open standards, such as the World Wide Web, reduce dependence on a single vendor and allow for more interoperability. IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) and LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) are two open standards for e-mail. Running behind the scenes on desktops or servers, these protocols facilitate the way e-mail is handled by a variety of clients.

Through all these efforts, the IT Council has refrained from dictating which hardware or software a division or program ought to use. Instead, it has encouraged groups to take IT factors into account when making upgrades or buying hardware. "Balancing autonomy and standardization" is one of the key themes that emerged from the IT workshop. This approach has gradually brought the institution more internal compatibility of systems without fomenting rebellion. For example, UCAR has maintained a basic level of support for Macintosh computers, and there has been no institutionally mandated phaseout of Macs, although some groups have chosen to replace their Macs with PCs when the time has come for new hardware.

F&A's new approach

A key effort to improve the usefulness of systems across the institution is under way in Finance and Administration. The Bi-Tech system has been the core package for UCAR's financial accounting since 1994. While it meets UCAR's day-to-day accounting needs, Bi-Tech's terminal-style interface is difficult to learn and use. Thus, a group in F&A is now writing user-friendly Web-based applications that hook into Bi-Tech.

"We don't have a lot of leeway with Bi-Tech without violating our maintenance and support agreements with the vendor," says Rebecca Oliva, head of F&A's IT office. "We're developing ways of collecting data that ultimately will interface with Bi-Tech. In essence, we're creating a 'wrapper' around Bi-Tech that embraces some of the newer technologies available to us."

One of the top priorities is putting time cards on line. Before the end of 1999, F&A hopes to have a Web-based interface allowing all staff to key in and their supervisors to authorize their biweekly hours on line. Further in the future are two projects of greater complexity: the creation of interactive, Web-based forms for purchase requisitions and for travel-related documents. To make sure they're on the right track with these projects, "we've been spending a lot of time talking to end users," Rebecca says.

Left to right: Vance Howard, Rebecca Oliva, and Steve Hinson of F&A's IT office.

Rebecca's group has hired two new developers, Kristian Woyna (brought on board only last month) and Vance Howard. Vance, who joined the group last fall, is using Sapphire/Web from Bluestone Software to create Java applications that enable Bi-Tech to interface with the Web.

The new cluster of software engineers emerging in F&A is an example of something strongly recommended by the IT Council: the formation of new engineering groups to create essential services needed by the whole institution. In a related effort, the UCAR-wide Desktop Systems Advisory Committee has increased the visibility of desktop services that span the institution.

According to Peter, "The DSAC was doing some really good, groundbreaking work, finding some new technologies to solve problems such as e-mail and calendars, but they had no one to implement [their findings]. The IT Council recommended that not only should we have advisory groups, but we should have engineering groups that would actually go and do the work." Funding for a DSAC-oriented engineering group failed to go through for fiscal year 2000 but will be considered for FY 01. Meanwhile, the DSAC is proceeding with analyses of desktop-computing issues and seeking staff input (see sidebar).

Getting what you need (and skipping what you don't)

UCAR's IT strategy looks outward as well as inward. Several groups are working on community initiatives that will bring a new face to our traditional role of providing large data sets and facilitating their use.

In collaboration with the University of Rhode Island and other partners, Peter is working on DODS, an initiative well matched to UCAR's IT strategy. The Distributed Oceanographic Data System will allow for small pieces of giant data sets to be accessed through the Web with maximum efficiency. "Instead of FTP-ing a 2- or 3-gigabyte data set and then using only 10 or 20 megabytes, it will be possible to extract that 10 or 20 MB directly over the network," says Peter. Through DODS, network-savvy versions of common data analysis packages such as Ferret and MatLab are being created. Users will then be able to bring data from a server through the Web and directly into the analysis package, regardless of the data format on the server end.

DODS is funded by NASA, with additional support from NOAA and NSF. It is one of 24 initiatives beneath a NASA umbrella called the Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP). The group was formed as a way to diversify strategies for processing data from the Earth Observing System. NASA's array of EOS satellites will be launched beginning later this year, with the number of launches accelerating over the next few years.

A number of universities and laboratories are working on portions of DODS. At UCAR, Unidata is developing user support services, while HAO is working on filters for its solar physics data set formats. Lawrence Buja (CGD) has put some of the most frequently sought output from the division's climate system model onto a DODS-friendly Web server. As for SCD, although DODS does not yet support all of the data formats in SCD's archives, the division plans to eventually use DODS to provide interactive access to many of its most popular data sets.

Richard Chinman is project manager for the DODS/ESIP effort. More information on DODS is available at DODS Distributed Oceanographic Data System .

The emerging world of O-O

Dave Fulker (left) and Steve Emmerson.

Unidata is among the groups exploring the leading edge of UCAR's IT strategy: object-oriented (O-O) software design. Although the benefits of O-O software are already evident in spreadsheets and modern graphical user interfaces, we're only beginning to learn how much O-O can do for us in the scientific and business arenas, according to Unidata director Dave Fulker. "If you look at the best designs for modern software, they almost all employ O-O principles," says Dave.

How does O-O work? "Object orientation is jargon," admits Dave. "It's hard to come up with a really clean explanation." He gives it a shot anyway: "An object is like a little virtual computer. The way you interact with objects is by sending messages to them." Instead of data being static and completely distinct from software, data elements and code elements are integrated into organic software components called "objects." The emphasis in O-O design is on the behavior of these objects as they respond to messages, change their internal states, and issue new messages.

For instance, a satellite image is typically stored in a computer as a two-dimensional array of numerical values. To display the satellite image on a monitor, these values are translated into points of varying brightness. Additional information, known as metadata, specifies the size of the array and how its numerical values relate to brightness and color. To overlay a geographic map on the satellite image, you need metadata that provides the latitude and longitude of each point in the image. These metadata change continuously and depend on the satellite's orbit. Metadata may be stored with the image or elsewhere.

In O-O design, the satellite image is stored as an object that contains its numerical values, its metadata, and software procedures known as methods. Together, these allow the image to

This set of data, metadata, and methods may be overkill for a single satellite image. However, explains Dave, the O-O emphasis on behavior (gained by joining data with software) can simplify the handling of a variety of satellite images. For example, the images from polar-orbiting and geosynchronous satellites behave similarly as O-O objects, even though they require very different codes to compute their geographic locations.

"I like to think of the objects as people," says Unidata programmer Steve Emmerson. "You can imagine all these objects being connected in a network and exchanging messages back and forth." Steve and fellow programmers John Caron and Don Murray are exploring Java-based O-O techniques for displaying weather and climate data in three dimensions. Their work will help serve the display and analysis needs of Unidata's 150 member universities.

Steve has already created an interactive version of the standard thermodynamic sounding. In it, you can move around a virtual column of winds plotted in three dimensions rather than the usual stack of 2-D wind vectors. Is this part of the future of weather visualization? One might say that's the object. •BH

How to make your voice heard

The IT Council continues to meet monthly and to oversee a number of subgroups working on aspects of the IT strategic plan. Jack Fellows, UCAR vice president for corporate affairs, was recently succeeded as the council chair by Katy Schmoll, UCAR vice president for finance and administration. The group invites your inquiries and suggestions. The IT Council's home page, which lists members and other information, is at Information Technology Council (ITC).

Key points from the IT Strategic Plan

Here are the eight recommendations from the 1997-98 IT Strategic Plan. The full plan is at UCAR Information Technology Strategic Plan .

  • UCAR IT should move toward distributed, object-oriented methodologies.

  • Software systems in UCAR should be designed around a three-tier architecture, with emphasis on standardized interfaces in the middle (service) tier.

  • UCAR should continue to operate and support a leading-edge network and associated services.

  • UCAR should employ open standards whenever feasible.

  • Continued innovation at the division/program level should be encouraged and supported.

  • Continued emphasis must be placed on technical training for staff.

  • A standing committee should be formed to coordinate IT efforts in UCAR.

  • UCAR should consider creating new funded engineering groups to design and implement essential service-layer functions.

Get up to speed on desktop issues with DSAC sessions

The Desktop Systems Advisory Committee (DSAC) is holding a set of all-staff meetings in mid-August to relay results from two years of fact finding and to get your input on desktop-computing issues. These include e-mail attachments, document formats, and a possible institution-wide set of calendars on the Web. "We've done all this work to investigate these problems," says DSAC cochair Mike Daniels. "Now we're trying to communicate the solutions we've found and involve staff at large in those solutions."

The meetings will take place on Tuesday, 17 August, in the ML Main Seminar Room and on Thursday, 19 August, in the FL auditorium. Both sessions will run from 9:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The first half hour will serve as an introduction for people who can't attend for the whole morning. Brief Q&A periods will close out each topic throughout the morning. Below is a summary of the agenda. For more details, check the DSAC Web page.

9:00 What is DSAC?
9:30 E-mail issues
10:00 E-mail attachments
10:30 Document formats
11:00 Hardware/software acquisitions
11:20 Organization-wide calendars
11:45 The future
12:00 General discussion


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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall