Spatial Technologies-Integrating CAD and GIS Using Topobase

30 Apr, 2006 By: James L. Sipes

A topology database simplifies the integration of CAD and GIS data.

Being able to work together seamlessly has long been the Holy Grail of the CAD and GIS worlds. Users have numerous ways to move CAD data to GIS programs and vice versa, but any time data goes through a translation process, the quality of that data may be negatively affected.

Imagine being able to create, modify, manage and visualize both CAD and GIS data in the same system without going through any type of translation process. Autodesk has developed a suite of geospatial tools that seeks to do just that. This suite includes Map 3D, MapGuide and Topobase. The combination of Autodesk's geospatial software and Oracle's database and spatial technology simplifies the process of integrating CAD and GIS data.

What Is Topobase?

The heart of this software suite is Topobase, a topology database developed around Oracle Spatial. It creates a data-management layer that can be used by organizations to simplify the process of working with geospatial information.

"We have found customers really want to design and manage their assets, not their data," says Don Weigel, director of industry solutions for Autodesk. "They want a composite CAD/GIS system that enables the full asset management lifecycle from design and construction through operation and maintenance." Because of Oracle's position in the marketplace, Topobase users can be assured of a secure, affordable and reliable central repository for their geospatial data.

Topobase is used as the data-management backbone of many integrated solutions. The idea behind Topobase is to provide a structure that can handle a wide variety of data—such as geometry, topology, metadata and attribute data—in an integrated environment. Because all data is stored in a single database, the process of managing data is greatly simplified. "With Topobase and Oracle Spatial, you no longer have to maintain multiple data sets, and this not only increases efficiency but also reduces the possibility of data conflicts," says Weigel.

In This Article
In This Article

Topobase originally was developed by c-plan of Guemligen, Switzerland (see box). For Autodesk, the acquisition of Topobase will make it easier for the company to provide comprehensive solutions to organizations such as utilities, municipalities and governmental agencies. "We are extending proven technology and expanding it into North America," notes Pat Byrne, geospatial solutions architect for Autodesk. "We've focused on solving the key infrastructure lifecycle data management problems," says Weigel. "These include the difficulty sharing geospatial data, inefficient processes for maintaining data, poor data quality and the high cost of ownership associated with keeping CAD and GIS systems in sync."

Different Modules

A series of modules make up the Topobase suite of tools. "Topobase is a framework not just for the database but also for applications such as survey, land records, gas, electric and water," adds Weigel. These specialized applications for Topobase are available as standard solutions, which simplifies the process of installation.

At the core of Topobase are three basic tools:

  • 1. A desktop client that works within the Map tool to enable users to design infrastructure and store it in the database.
  • 2. A Web client that works with MapGuide and allows users to view or change graphics or data.
  • 3. An administrative tool for customizing the database and regulating access to the data.

Autodesk also has developed a series of standard modules for industry-specific applications, such as tasks related to electric, gas, sewer, surveying and water systems. Each module has a data model, business rules and a set of display models that help manage infrastructure. For example, the electric module can be used to manage routes, electrical nodes, conductors, transformers and other features. The water module is a utility application that can be used to acquire, process and maintain all network geospatial data.

Topobase North America Launch  in Late 2006
Topobase North America Launch in Late 2006

Because of Topobase's flexibility, users can develop their own customized modules or tweak some features of a standard module if a standard module doesn't meet their specific needs. One example of this flexibility that I have seen is a green area custom module, which was used to design and manage public open spaces as well as playgrounds, parks and tree plantings. With this custom module, users could set predefined tree species, determine types of playground equipment, describe existing conditions and maintenance requirements and link with a various maintenance programs.

How Does It Work?

Topobase provides an interface that allows even nonprofessionals to access all the data within Oracle Spatial. One big advantage in this approach is that users need no expertise in database management to take advantage of Topobase's power. Topobase uses Autodesk's Map and MapGuide to process data and present it in a graphic format. Autodesk has made significant improvements in both programs, and these improvements are evident in how the two handle CAD and GIS data. One of the nice things about working with the new versions of Map 3D and MapGuide is that they have similar dialog boxes. You get the feeling you're working with one integrated program instead of two separate programs with different commands.

Among the improvements to Map 3D is vector graphics performance, especially when it comes to large shapefiles such as a 150MB U.S. Census data set. Another improvement is its ability to work with geospatial data. "Map 3D 2007 has enhanced data access that makes it easier to read and write data in its native format," says Peter Southwood, an ISD application engineer with Autodesk. No conversion is required. Users can work on shapefiles directly within Map required. Users can work on shapefiles directly within Map 3D. A direct read/write feature can be used for many other data type, raster and GIS file formats. Dan Berman, geospatial sales manager for Autodesk, believes that Map 3D will become the tool of choice for creating and editing both geospatial data and CAD data and then graphically conveying that information to others.

Another of Map 3D's improvements is its 3D engine. I haven't had a chance to test the 3D capabilities of Map 3D, but I have seen impressive demonstrations in which planar graphics were draped over detailed 3D terrain models.

MapGuide has undergone a complete rewrite. "It was designed from the ground up to be an open-source product," says Southwood. Users can work with the interface or work directly with the code, which is in Java, PHP and NET.


The advantages of using Topobase to handle CAD and GIS data are numerous. You can set up a MapGuide viewer for field workers, and they can see the exact same format or tables. Using GPS-enabled handheld mobile units, field technicians can access the most current information about resources, and any information they input can be added to the system almost instantaneously. For a utility company, this means that engineers in the home office can be updated about the condition of water lines in a matter of seconds and then make decisions on how best to handle potential repairs.

You can change attributes for an item, and all users accessing that particular object or data will have the updated information as soon as you hit Update. This capability will minimize problems associated with out-of-sync data.

"One of the things you can do is take a standard line in a drawing, assign it to represent a real-world object, such as a pipe, and automatically have attributes associated with it," says Berman. "I can import an entire set or layer of a CAD file and quickly assign attributes and intelligence to those features."

Open-Source Approach

The process of creating, using and managing geospatial data is a time-consuming process for most companies. There has always been an interesting paradox—companies were interested in one-stop solutions that made it easier to ensure integration of data and processes, yet they shied away from proprietary turnkey systems. Companies must commit considerable time, energy and funding to get all of their data into a specific format, but often find that the system does not meet their needs as well as they expected. If companies are working with proprietary data formats, they basically have to live with their decision or start the whole process over, which typically is not a viable option. Many companies prefer to use a system based on open data standards because this helps them avoid becoming restricted to a proprietary system.

The trend these days by companies such as Autodesk and ESRI is to offer their clients the advantages of a single platform, but with a nonproprietary solution. Because Topobase meets standards set by the Open Geospatial Consortium, working with applications from other manufacturers is pretty straightforward. For Autodesk, the move toward open-source standards means that the company can focus more on developing industry-specific applications.

Best of Both Worlds

One expectation is that Topobase will reach a much broader user base because of Autodesk's connections. Autodesk has been around for long time, and has a wide variety of products and a strong user base. "Autodesk has seven million registered users around the world and more than 2,500 third-party developers," says Steve McAllister, director of sales development for Autodesk. The company operates in 106 countries, and their software has been translated into 25 different languages.

To me, the idea of working with programs such as Autodesk Map 3D and ArcGIS and blending files from the two without going through any kind of translation process is exciting. I don't have to decide which one is going to be my base program. I use both programs and don't see giving up either one any time soon. Because ESRI focuses on cartographic mapping and Autodesk focuses on technical mapping, I need both.

James L. Sipes is the founding principal of Sand County Studios in Seattle, Washington, and senior associate with EDAW in Atlanta, Georgia. Reach him at

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