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ArcIMS 4.0 - an "Out -of -the Box" Internet Mapping Solution?

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Issue: 
Fall 2002

- Brent Brock, Konza Prairie LTER (KNZ)

Internet mapping continues to gain popularity and ESRI's ArcIMS has emerged as the "software of choice" for providing this capability. The latest release of ArcIMS 4.0 provides some significant new capabilities over its predecessors but deploying these new features is no walk in the park. The following is my experience with installing, upgrading, and using ArcIMS on the Konza LTER web server beginning with version 3.0 two years ago.

Basic Internet Map Server Installation - case history

Installing ArcIMS 3.0 for the first time was a blood curdling experience. I did manage to make it work but only after three days of chasing down bug work-arounds and other tweaks. I won't frighten readers with the gory details because fortunately ESRI fixed all of the problems I had experienced in the next release. With ArcIMS 3.1 the documentation had improved significantly so by following the moderately complicated installation procedure to the letter, I was successful on my first attempt. One very large improvement with version 3.1 was support for the Tomcat servlet engine that was a big improvement over the free version of JRun that I used in the initial installation. Although Tomcat can be integrated into most popular web servers, we run Tomcat as its own service. I've seen a couple of articles in the ESRI knowledgbase that suggest ArcIMS may be less stable when running on an integrated Tomcat installation. I don't know why this would be true, but what we have works so I am sticking with it for now.

Installation of the basic components of ArcIMS 4.0 is very similar to version 3.1. Like 3.1, anyone proficient at following directions should be able to have a basic IMS server operational within a few hours. Likewise, upgrading to 4.0 from a previous version is fairly simple since your servlet engine will already be installed and ESRI provides instructions for saving and importing your old configuration. I was able to upgrade and have all of my existing map services operational within 20 minutes. You do need to pay attention to your version of Java Runtime Environment (JRE) though. The current release of JRE does not support JRE 1.4 so you may have to install a back revision of JRE to make things work. However, simply upgrading the basic components provides few gains in functionality without installing the new components.

Implementing the new tools in ArcIMS 4.0

Major enhancements in ArcIMS 4.0 are the Metadata Explorer and ArcMap Server. The metadata explorer provides a nice interface for viewing metadata and accessing data. It is integrated with ArcGIS so you can manage the XML-based metadata files in ArcCatalog and publish them on the server using drag-and-drop. ArcMap Server translates ArcMap mxd files for use in ArcIMS services. This is a big improvement over the clunky interface and limited rendering capabilities of the ArcIMS web authoring and designing tools.

Implementing each of these new components presents significant challenges. The first consideration is that these components are designed for use with ArcGIS 8.2 or later so an upgrade may be required on at least one workstation. Second, the Metadata Explorer requires metadata stored in SDE. Lastly, ArcMap Server and ArcGIS cannot be installed on the same box. This last limitation is particularly significant because it presents the same data mapping challenges familiar to anyone who has tried to move an ArcView project file to another computer. ArcMap seems to have poor support for UNC pathnames leaving the options of either copying mxd and associated data to the ArcIMS server box without changing pathnames or using SDE. Since the metadata explorer requires SDE anyway, this seemed like the obvious choice. Although SDE for Covers is supported, I opted to install SQL Server on our GIS box and run ArcSDE. Even with SDE installed I was unable to get a connection from the ArcMap Server until I discovered I needed to add an entry for the remote SDE service in the "services" file on the ArcIMS server. With that fix, the ArcMap Server has performed beautifully and allows us to publish ArcMap data frames and layouts directly to the Internet without having to attempt to duplicate them in ArcXML. Installing the metadata explorer required a certain amount of Zen to achieve success. The stumbling blocks were too many to list but I suggest anyone contemplating installing the metadata explorer first spend some time perusing the voluminous discussion threads about installing metadata explorer on the ArcIMS Discussion Forum before attempting the installation.

Topology of the KNZ Internet Mapping Service

ArcIMS Capabilities

To answer the title question: is ArcIMS an out-of-the-box Internet mapping solution, the answer is yes and no. With a little luck it is possible to install the basic ArcIMS components and serve simple maps on the Internet using the canned tools. With this option you have a choice of serving maps using HTML or Java viewers. The html viewer sends maps to the client as jpeg or gif images so it is lightweight and requires only a standard Web browser. The java viewer requires Java Runtime Environment and viewer software installed on the client but provides a richer set of features. Maps can be served as features (rather than static map images) that allow users to do things like manipulate symbol pallets of individual layers or add layers from other sources, such as local shapefiles or other Internet map services. Unfortunately, the tools for developing these basic services (ArcIMS Author and ArcIMS Designer) are rather cumbersome to use and limited in their rendering capabilities. Nevertheless, at Konza we have found these tools useful for generating simple map graphics for publications or fieldwork and for viewing thematic layers like soils or burn history data. We provide both java and html versions of simple maps at: http://www.konza.ksu.edu/data_catalog/gis/konza_prairie_interactive_maps.htm.

ArcMap Server improves map-rendering capabilities. With ArcMap Server, creation of high quality maps is greatly simplified and sophisticated renderings like shaded relief, transparent, or gradient fills is a snap. However, I wouldn't classify this as "out-of-the-box" because of the potential difficulties in implementation. Additionally, ArcMap Server is an image server: only static map images are sent to the client; users cannot manipulate the symbol pallets of the layers. Similarly, Metadata Explorer provides an attractive interface for metadata browsing if one can overcome deployment hurdles. Unfortunately, the metadata explorer is not very customizable at this point, so you are limit to the Geography Network style of metadata display, which leaves many metadata elements hidden. Konza's metadata explorer can be viewed at: http://www.konza.ksu.edu/MetadataExplorer/explorer.jsp.

Moving beyond "out-of-the-box", ArcIMS is a powerful development tool that supports sophisticated applications. Developers have their choice of using native ArcXML or one of the application connectors available (Java, ActiveX or ColdFusion). Using the ActiveX connector I developed an elegant solution to the problem of retrieving fire histories at Konza Praire (http://www.konza.ksu.edu/maps/BurnQuery.asp). This application runs a spatial query on our burn layers so the records returned are based on location rather than watershed names (which may change or move over time). Installing the connector was very simple and took only a few minutes. Writing the code was fairly straight forward but the ActiveX connector object model has a few rough edges. For example, ArcIMS returns the values of date fields as milliseconds since 1/1/1970, which is not very handy. This required a custom vbscript function to convert dates to a readable format. Also, the connector has no provision for sorting the records returned by a query filter; so I stole a chunk of javascript to sort the records at the client. These hurdles notwithstanding, development of this application was time well spent because it provides an improved query tool for users while reducing database maintenance to a single table that is automatically updated when the GIS layer is edited.

In summary, ArcIMS provides a powerful suite of Internet mapping tools. Information Managers simply wanting to post basic interactive maps on the Internet should find ArcIMS a useful "out-of-the-box" solution. Although implementation of the basic features from scratch is somewhat complicated, the documentation is good and most administrators should have things up and running with 1 to 2 days effort. IM's planning to deploy the new features in ArcIMS should expect to spend considerable time planning their deployment and chasing down undocumented glitches. IM's looking for more advanced Internet mapping capabilities will have to develop their own, but ArcIMS provides the tools needed to do it. ArcIMS ships with many good sample files to get the developer started or just adapt one of the Site Starters available for free from ESRI . Finally, the ArcIMS discussion forums are great places to look for help.