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Case Study: NC DOT Database Synchronization

  • August 9, 2005
  • By Breck Carter
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The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) faced many data synchronization challenges typical of mobile computing today. This case study provides an overview of the problem encountered by NC DOT Mobile Inspector application (the need for timely exchange of information within bridge inspection teams and with the central office) as well as the solution (installing SQL Anywhere Studio MobiLink technology to implement database synchronization on this application).

The Problem

Before I traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina in the spring of 2004, I never gave much thought to bridges and overpasses. I didn't think about the need to regularly inspect bridges for safety, and I certainly didn't know about "Bridge Inspector" as a job title. For all I knew, those men in the hard hats and safety vests were cleaning up roadkill.

That changed pretty quickly when I started working on the Mobile Inspector application. There are about 19,000 bridges and culverts in North Carolina that need to be inspected on a regular basis, and there are about 60 Field Inspectors doing that, including four teams who work underwater. Those inspectors are very busy taking notes and photos in the field, before returning to their offices to prepare inspection reports that are used to determine which bridges will be okay for a while longer and which ones need work now.

I joined the project as a consultant with responsibility for the design and implementation of the MobiLink synchronization setup. The decision to use SQL Anywhere and MobiLink had already been made before I arrived, and except for a few schema changes required to support synchronization, the database design was complete and application development was well underway.

Overview of the NC DOT Application

The Mobile Inspector application is used to gather measurements and observations made by the inspectors, as well as to store digital photographs. It is designed to push data entry from the office out into the field, to save costs as well as satisfy a federal government mandate to capture bridge inspection data electronically. To make this possible, it features voice control, handwriting recognition, and a custom shorthand tool.

Figure 1: Shane Dunlow, Field Inspector, records flange measurements in the Mobile Inspector application on a tablet PC. Photo courtesy Jeff Odom.


Each inspector uses a tablet PC running Windows 2000 in the field. If this were a traditional two-level, client-server arrangement, or even a two-level distributed hierarchy, all the tablet PCs would communicate or synchronize directly with the central database. However, for security reasons, connections to the central database are available only at the office. That means data must be copied to the Team Leader's tablet PC before each field trip begins and copied back when the inspection report is complete. Data must also be copied back and forth between Team Leader and Team Member PCs, sometimes several times on a large bridge; those operations are performed on site using wireless connections.

Figure 2 shows how the computers involved in the Mobile Inspector application are arranged in three levels, with the central database server at the top, the Team Leader tablet PCs in the middle, and the Team Member PCs at the bottom. The Team Leaders communicate with the central database via wireline LANs, and with the Team Members via wireless LANs. Synchronization server software runs on both the central database computer and on the Team Leader PCs, and those servers communicate with synchronization client software on the Team Leader and Team Member PCs respectively.

Click here for a larger image.

Figure 2: Three-Level Distributed Hierarchy

The application itself uses a relational database management system to store data on the tablet PC, including the digital photographs. This was done for all the usual reasons folks use an RDBMS: it offers data integrity and recoverability as well as great power and simplicity. That's the good news. The bad news is that moving from a single central database to a three-level distributed hierarchy involving dozens of remote databases is a difficult task. Especially when you can't send a DBA out with each inspection team, no matter how nice the weather is on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the synchronization process must be reliable even when wireless connections aren't.

The database setup at NC DOT uses Oracle 9i as the central database, Adaptive Server Anywhere (ASA) for the remote databases on the tablet PCs, and MobiLink synchronization software to handle both Oracle-to-ASA and ASA-to-ASA transfers. ASA and MobiLink both ship as part of SQL Anywhere Studio Version 9 from iAnywhere Solutions.

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