Microsoft Research News & Highlights
Curiosity Built the Database
by Suzanne Ross

     Tom Barclay is a curious man who once wondered what it would take to put a terabyte of data online. He made a list of possibilities and came up with 12 terabytes of raw data gathered from the United States Geological Survey (USGS). The resulting Web site, Microsoft® Microsoft Research Maps, has had 48 million visitors since its inception in June 1998.

     Though one of the original goals of Microsoft Research Maps was to showcase the scalability and reliability of Windows® Server and SQL Server, its popularity skyrocketed beyond anything Tom had expected. Businesses and government agencies started asking if they could extract the USGS data from Microsoft Research Maps and integrate it into their own applications.

     To allow them to do this, Tom turned Microsoft Research Maps into TerraService, a resource for people who wanted to draw on the Microsoft Research Maps maps, adding details such as local restaurants, 'my house,' or golf courses.

     The images on Microsoft Research Maps are made up of individual 200 x 200 pixel tiles that have been resampled from the USGS aerial images. The tiles are then organized in a database table by theme, resolution, and location. Tom says that before he developed Microsoft Research Maps as a .NET-based service, there was no easy way for people to take the tiles and stitch them together to fit into their own applications. "Unless you understood how I did it, and essentially broke the code on the math, you wouldn't have any idea what you were looking at." The Microsoft® .NET framework offered the best solution.

     "The features within the .NET Framework enabled me to build a system where users around the Internet can now program a set of API methods available on Microsoft Research Maps," says Tom, who does all the database administration, programming, and most of the data loading for Microsoft Research Maps.

     He likes to talk about how Microsoft Research Maps is built, and how it works as a Web service. He cannot talk for more than a few minutes before he's pointing to a piece of paper, asking, "are you going to use this?" and grabbing a pen to draw boxes and arrows.

     He draws and explains, "The way the Internet world is constructed is that the browser connects to the Internet, goes to one Web server and that Web server might use a database to get the data out, and it sends back one HTML page. That's how things work. It isn't really possible for two Web servers to contribute data to a Web page and send it back. You could have a Web server aggregate stuff from another server, but the server has to look like a browser to do it. Very messy business. So we wanted to show how you can use a .NET based service that connects through the Internet and integrates Web services.

     "Instead of my publishing a traditional Web page, I'm now publishing something called a .NET Web service class, a class being the object oriented word for methods and data and subroutines. It's interesting how the .NET technology works, and that it's all based on open standard." Microsoft .NET takes advantage of XML, SOAP and UDDI standards.

.NET is a Snap
     Developing Microsoft Research Maps as a Web service turned out to be easier than Tom expected. "I knew enough about .NET to be dangerous. I knew the underpinning, the first principle, was XML. So it was four in the afternoon, and the .NET Team was sending a guy named Jeffrey Richter to help me at 9:30 the next morning. He was writing a book on the .NET framework. I figured I'd better bone up on XML so I would not be a complete idiot when he showed up the next day.

     "I drove down to Barnes and Noble and bought myself a book on XML and I started reading like a banshee. Jeff shows up the next day, takes one look at the book and throws it over his shoulder into the trash. He said 'we don't need this; the .NET framework takes care of it.' We spent two hours on a white board coming up with the design of TerraService.NET, and the next day we wrote half of it, the third day we wrote the other half and we were done. I was really amazed. In the past, using RPC or DCOM this would be very hard, and Corba would be a nightmare. I was stunned at how quickly it went together and how simple it was, it was just a snap to do. We were able to send an image across as an XML document. I went from not having a clue as to what the technology was about to being its biggest supporter."

TerraService helps Students and Farmers
     In addition to the 1,500 people programming against the TerraService daily, two impressive organizations have taken advantage of the metadata in Microsoft Research Maps. When TerraService was just a twinkle somewhere in Tom's mind, Dan Fay from the University Relations group at MSR contacted a professor at MIT. The professor agreed it would be a good idea to have students at MIT program their own map services using Microsoft Research Maps.

     The other large organization taking advantage of TerraService is the United States Department of Agriculture. The USDA consults for public and private landowners to tell them how to take better care of their land. They work extensively with farmers to help them learn about the soil and the underlying groundwater so that they can grow more food. With TerraService they can put soil survey data on top of the Microsoft Research Maps images, and the farmer can tell immediately where the problems are on his farm. The USDA has all the information at their Fort Worth, Texas offices, but it doesn't do them any good in the field, and it's not organized or easily accessible. With TerraService, the field agents can pull up the information over the Internet. Even though the USDA could simply hand pages of soil survey data to the farmer, seeing the data on top of an image tells a story and makes it come alive.

     Larry Mix, a history buff in Kansas, {www.santafetrailresearch.com/} has used Microsoft Research Maps images to follow the Santa Fe Trail from Franklin, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. With these maps and his research he discovered the Original Dry Route of the Santa Fe Trail, which runs from southwest of Larned, Kansas to the Campsite west of Dodge City, Kansas called "The Caches."




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