Informix to Reveal Ecosystem's Mysteries

The IllustraD4, developed for NASA, could have database management applications above the earth and under the sea

Informix Software Inc. and NASA in the last week of July selected several beta test sites for their Earth Observing System project's database management system.

The IllustraD4 database management system for EOS' Data Information System is the biggest database management system project ever, company officials say. When completed in 2002, the database will have a daily data capacity that exceeds the Library of Congress.

Plans call for the universal software servers to be shipped to unnamed NASA sites by September and installed in eight centers later this year, Informix officials said.

"Right now, we're guarding the locations of the actual sites pretty closely until they are up and running," said Jess Worthington, product manager in the federal systems division of Informix, a Menlo Park, Calif., database company. "The customers don't want to release that information prematurely. We want to make sure there are no glitches. We have to integrate the technology with existing Illustra applications in many cases. Everything should be ready by December."

Informix was awarded the multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract in March by Electronic Data Systems at the behest of Hughes Information Systems, the prime contractor for the EOS Data Information System, Informix officials said.

An EDS spokesman said the Dallas-based company chose Informix because it has the only technology capable, at this point, of performing the type of database queries that is required for the project. NASA requires a four-dimensional system that can accommodate longitude, latitude, height and even time elements.

For its part of the contract, Informix is providing its high-performance, object relational database engine -- the Illustra ORDBMS, its spatial data handling extensions and multidimensional spatial indexing to respond to queries from thousands of environmental scientists requesting petabytes of data.

Researchers will have access to reams of satellite information available at EOS centers, located at leading universities across the country, for use in global change research. The EOS contract calls for eight centers for processing, archiving and retrieval, and scientific computing.

The primary purpose of EOS is to determine how -- and even if -- human behavior is affecting the ecology of the globe.

Data gathered from the satellites and filtered by the databases will assist in agricultural analysis, tracking climate and planning land use.

Oceanographers will be able to monitor the movement of schools of fish and the production of plankton, a vital source of food to sea creatures.

Ecologists will use the EOS data to track the possible breakdown of ecosystems.

"For years, we've had to try to use conventional relational database management systems that were designed for completely different purposes," said Jeff Dozier, dean of the School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "Informix provides in its database the ability to automatically reformat, calibrate and locate data in precise geographic coordinates on standard grids worldwide. What's more, it is accessible via a straightforward query language -- standard query language and an interface to the World Wide Web. It is the only technology available that can accomplish the mission."

According to J. Neil Weintraut, managing director for technology research at Hambrecht & Quist, the San Francisco-based investment bank, the EOS-DIS system illustrates the changing needs in the database world.

Simplistic, static data types, such as tables and alphanumeric data, are being replaced by complex data types, such as documents and images. "As the trend from simple to complex information metaphors continues, the underlying design of relational databases increasingly surfaces as a fundamental limitation," said Weintraut.

"Instead, new, dynamic and complex information metaphors require content management systems that are designed from the ground up to inherently provide the versatility and functionality required by complex content. Illustra's content management system provides powerful technology that exactly and uniquely matches this rapidly emerging need," he said.

According to Worthington, Informix hopes to learn much from this project that can be placed in databases used by commercial companies, including firms on Wall Street that need to track market data and develop arbitrage solutions from that information.

Informix, for the EOS project, is developing a database software tool that will enable scientists to incorporate time-lapsed data into a database, providing scientists with the means to locate data based on its geographic, as well as temporal, elements.

Should other database companies -- Oracle and Sybase -- be envious that Informix is working on this project?

"At the least," said Worthington. "When this is done, we hope to provide data to scientists that will enable them to ask questions that they couldn't visualize before. The size of this project alone is exciting."

A spokesman for Oracle Corp., a competing database supplier, reached at the Redwood Shores, Calif., office said the company did not comment on competitors' contracts.

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