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Planning Systems - Developing for the US Navy

Sometimes a user interface must do double duty. Such is the case for a data acquisition system developed by Planning Systems, Inc., for the U.S. Navy. The portable system, designed to be taken aboard submarines, enables acoustic data to be collected, processed and displayed on the screen so it can be validated and analyzed.

But to work effectively, the interface must meet the needs of two distinct users. The military personnel who collect the data are looking for a foolproof system that can be operated "by the book." Once that data is collected, researchers want the flexibility to specify which data sets are selected, as well as full control over how that data is presented and graphed. To meet the needs of both user groups, as well as speed up developer productivity, Planning Systems uses the X-Designer graphical user interface builder.

"Coding by hand, it took two people three years to come up with the first version of the system," said Kelvin Kwong, a Planning Systems engineer, "With X-Designer, we estimate it will take three developers just one year to produce a working system."

X-Designer has enabled the development team to do rapid prototyping of the interface - an especially important concern given the system's widely divergent requirements. Working directly with its customers, Kwong and two other developers first sketch ideas for the display on paper, then use X-Designer to transform the sketch into a working onscreen display - a process that typically takes three days. The complete working prototype of the interface, including callbacks and minimal handshaking, are completed within a week. "At the presentation, our customers usually like what they see, and we can then use X-Designer to make further changes right on the spot," said Kwong.

The completed data acquisition system marked the first major upgrade to the Motif-based software. The new version provides more flexibility to researchers, enabling them to select different data sets for graphs, as well as increase the system's ability to collect different types of underwater acoustic signal data. "Our customers also wanted a better way to generate the graphic interface," said Kwong. "It needed to be more user-friendly and deliver results more quickly."

Software development took place on a Sun SPARCstation 20 running Solaris. It is deployed on a portable SPARC-based VME bus system developed by Force Computer, Inc. for embedded UNIX applications To maintain system portablilty, the interface is displayed on a laptop with a 12-inch color screen running Microsoft Windows and X Windows emulation software - which communicates with the VME system using Ethernet.

Kwong's group purchased X-Designer on the basis of favorable reviews from others in the company, and learned to use the system in about two weeks.

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