GIS and Beyond
GIS can help immediately pinpoint an exact location while creating a new SAP maintenance order or quickly determine the location of a problem in the network, such as a ruptured main, and subsequently create a list of the customers who will be affected. These two examples show how users can benefit from GIS in everyday work. GeoLink makes GIS functionality available to both technical and nontechnical departments and links geographic information to corresponding information within many other company information systems such as SAP, CIS, SCADA, and the company intranet archive.
Although linking GIS and SAP was envisioned years ago, the actual development was postponed until 2003. It began with an intensive search for a generic interface between GIS and SAP, specifically for the SAP PM and PS modules. This research led to solutions for integrating GIS and ERP environments using commercial products such as ArcFM Designer from Miner & Miner. However, after discussions with SAP, Esri, and independent consultants, Pidpa decided this could become complex and costly in the long term and the focus returned to creating records in SAP from GIS and vice versa. This solution could be used by GIS editors and many users who would benefit greatly from viewing geographic data with data from other information systems.
Starting a large-scale GIS and SAP integration project that would require completely redrawing work flows was not possible at that time due to limited resources. Consequently, the company looked at the problem from a pragmatic point of view and decided to implement incrementally to get quick returns on the project.
The first step was defining the business scenarios by talking to key SAP and GIS users in the distribution department. The work processes that linked GIS with other information systems that could generate almost immediate benefits were identified. Eight business scenarios were selected for development. A small team of IT and end users developed interfaces for these scenarios. Table 1 summarizes information on some of the interfaces that were developed.
The link between GIS and SAP was the most complex. It required extensive research by one of Pidpa's technical SAP specialists. These efforts resulted in SAPGui, a generic interface for passing parameters. Instead of trying to implement custom SAP interfaces, components in ArcMap and the GeoLink ArcIMS application were used as a portal environment from which the SAPGui could be started.
Challenges Faced in the GIS-SAP Link
The challenges faced by developers of the GIS-SAP link were associated with permissions issues, the requirement for rapid rollout of software to users, initialization of the interface, and the security and control issues associated with interfacing an application for a Web browser with a client-server application.
GeoLink is available company-wide, without restriction or risk of uncontrolled data changes. On the other hand, SAPGui allows users to access and change information. This powerful functionality required good permission management. When calling the SAPGui, a method was needed for users to log on to SAP with an individual user ID and get the correct permissions based on the user's clearance level. The difficulty was making this happen automatically through a single sign-in that used the Windows login to access SAP. This approach would make the interface fast and straightforward. While security is important, users can't be bothered with too many login screens.
The interface between GIS and SAP was effected using the SAP DCOM connector. However, this component had to be installed locally on every client PC. It was a challenge to push both the connector and the interface to more than 200 client PCs on the network in just one night.
When called, SAPGui defaults to the user menu so a transaction can be chosen. However, when accessing SAPGui from GeoLink, the user wants to go directly to a transaction based on the parameters obtained from GIS to display the desired data. This functionality is a major benefit of the GIS-SAP interface so it was included in the interface code.
Browser Application/Client-Server Application
GeoLink runs in a Web browser, while SAPGui is a regular client-server application. From a technical point of view, these two very different environments raise security and application control issues when calling one application from the other. Because this is a closed Intranet environment, rather than a more complicated Internet setting, security can be managed with a fair amount of flexibility. There are plans for eventually creating a Web browser implementation of the SAPGui, which will make the interfacing easier.
The Road Ahead
Many of Pidpa's goals for the project have been met. The company has created a powerful GIS edit environment and a flexible viewing environment that links GIS to other company information systems. However, this system runs only on the company intranet so field crews must still rely on paper documents. The next challenge will be to get these powerful tools to field crews in a manner tailored to their work processes.
In the future, the goal will really be to integrate the work processes of field crews with the current work flow in the office by equipping field-workers with mobile devices, either handheld or Tablet PCs. It is especially important for maintenance crews to easily retrieve water network information. The link with SAP is also very important because it contains all work order information.
Pidpa began an offline test project for field crews that offers new possibilities for accessing data. The real added value will be when these workers can receive new maintenance orders online, with links to GIS that allow zooming to the pertinent location, and immediately supply administrative feedback in SAP once the job is done. Bandwidth had been the limiting factor, but new technology is becoming available that will make standard applications in the field a reality.
But this isn't all. Increased availability of GIS data in vector format offers more possibilities for analysis and support for decision making by management. More nontechnical departments are discovering what GIS has to offer, not only for water network management but also for other applications.
The keyword for the future is integration-integration that respects the strengths and specific functionality of every information system but makes this information available to users quickly via an intuitive connection between information systems. GIS can be the glue to make this happen for a utility company. For more information about the GIS implementation at Pidpa, contact
Patrick Vercruyssen, Chief Engineer-ICT Manager
Tel.: +32 3 216 88 98
Fax: +32 3 260 60 03
About the Authors
Patrick Vercruyssen received a degree in electrical engineering from University of Leuven and an executive master's degree in business administration from the University of Antwerp. With Pidpa, he led a software development team and worked as an ICT manager. He was the project leader for the SAP implementation at Pidpa and sponsor for the GIS project. He currently serves as director of customer relations.
Bart Reynaert holds a bachelor's degree in computer science. In his position as ICT project lead at Pidpa since 1996, he has worked with ArcInfo, ArcSDE, ArcIMS, and ArcFM in addition to working on Internet/intranet Web site projects.
René Horemans has been with Pidpa since 1973 and has worked as a software developer, project leader for the first GIS test program. He received degrees in industrial engineering and software development. He currently serves as the project manager for off-shore raster to vector conversion and chief GIS editor.