The latest in digital data translation technology.

If an elephant were wearing a couple of good pairs of Nike tennis shoes, you might not know he was behind you until you smelled the peanuts on his breath. That is the way some people feel about GIS. It sort of “snuck up” on them. Now some of those people view themselves as perhaps a bit “behind the GIS curve” and have some catching up to do.

Well, let’s just suppose you found yourself in a position where you needed to build a working GIS from scratch. And let’s further suppose you had a large volume of digital documents. Not only were they in a variety of software formats, but they were also originally developed using several different datums and projections. Your task is to “digitally re-master” all of it into a single-system GIS format.

If this is your nightmare scenario, not to worry. Help is on the way.

Safe Software Inc. advertises itself as the “world’s leading supplier of data translation software.” The FME (Feature Manipulation Engine) 2003 X2 Suite that Safe Software produces is described as an ETL (Extract, Transform and Load) package. FME is actually much more than that. It is near digital alchemy. This package contains an impressive array of GIS utilities. And it supports more than 100 file formats.

The FME 2003 X2 Suite consists of three core components: FME Workbench, FME Universal Translator and FME Viewer.

Workbench interface showing relationships between source and destination datasets.

The FME Workbench

FME Workbench is the basic project management portal for this suite. Workspace Wizard in Workbench helps quickly guide the user in selecting translation formats. This is the module where the user can customize his translations.

If you have any experience with “table joins” you will feel right at home with this product. Workbench is Table Joins and Relates on steroids. It gives the user the ability to configure “destination” datasets on-the-fly. The program utilizes translation protocols called “Transformers” to accomplish these tasks. Safe Software refers to this concept as “Semantic Translation.” Batch translations using multiple files and tables can be accomplished in the same straightforward manner.

Universal Translator interface.

The FME Universal Translator

The Universal Translator does what its name implies. It allows the user to move datasets back and forth between a wide variety of datums and projections. And it is bi-directional. I found this very straightforward and easy to use. It creates a translation file with an .fmw extension for your “Map File,”* and the result or “destination” dataset is stored at a location of your choosing. You can also launch the Workbench interactively directly from the Translator interface.

The FME Viewer

The FME Viewer is equipped with all the industry standard data viewing tools including labeling, color symbols and feature reordering. As most viewers do, it allows for a variety of simple queries. It is very fast, and even allows viewing during translation.


Many products come to market with poor or insufficient documentation. This is certainly not the case with the FME 2003 X2 Suite. For example, the tutorial alone is 127 pages. The Suite comes with a .pdf library that well covers the entire array of operations this suite encompasses. The documentation is often aimed at the “developer user,” but it is still very clear and easy to understand. There are also the “movies,” nicely done audio-visual representations narrated in a lilting Canadian accent that highlights most of the key features of the programs in a simple and easy-to-follow fashion. The movies were a bonus for me because the demonstrator was working in formats I didn’t have available for testing, like DGN and MapInfo. I worked primarily with ESRI and Autodesk files, and all the exercises were successful.

I read through most of the material before I actually launched the program. And it is intuitive enough that I went through most of the basic operations with only minimum references to the internal help files—and those files have hyperlinks to additional on-line help.

A typical view of an AutoCAD drawing in FME Viewer.

Additional Features

The FME 2003 X2 Suite also has these additional features.

Database Connections

FME connects to standard SQL and Oracle, Access, ODBC and dBASE. It also works with SDE (version 3). I was able to connect to an SDE database very easily and “pull” data across a network. I also linked to MS Access. FME is OGC (Open GIS Consortium) enabled.

Application Extenders

These support standard GIS products like ESRI’s ArcGIS and ArcView, and Intergraph’s Geomedia.

FME Objects

FME Objects is a fully functional developer’s kit. It is basically a programmer’s tool. It allows users to “embed” FME technology into their web-enabled applications. It is compatible with ESRI Map Objects.


Safe Software has a training staff. They schedule workshops worldwide. It also has a group of staff consultants to support clients in application and project development. I spoke with some of the staff at the company as part of preparing this review. They were all quite helpful and pleasant.

System Requirements

The program runs on Windows XP, NT and 2000, UNIX, Sun SPARC Solaris 2.6, 7 and 8, HP-UX 11, IBM RS/6000 AIX 4, Red Hat Linux 6.2 Intel and Mac OS X.

I used a 2.2 GHz laptop with Windows 2000 for this review. I did notice some slowing in the translation of some large files (20 Mb or more).

In the end, FME is not a full-featured “stand alone” GIS package. Instead, the FME lends itself to being used as a “bridge” between GIS products and projects, and just about any available source data. In that regard, it is easily the most robust GIS utility I have seen.

For more information, visit the Safe Software website at You can view a live online demo, and an evaluation version of FME 2003 X2 Suite is also available for downloading.

*The “Map File” is the currency for the FME translator. (Mapping File structure)

An Example Using the X2 Suite

This is the initial view where the user creates the map file and sets up his task ordering.

In this view, we see an AutoCAD file showing contours. Note the attribute boxes on the right side of the view are blank.

This is the Workbench view showing the relationships the CAD file will have to the Shapefile to be created.

This is an FME map file log. It is a line-by-line report of which instructions the Translator executed. The user can review the results and decide what parameter changes to the Translator might be appropriate.

This view shows the result of a CAD to Shapefile conversion. Note the queried feature attributes now appear in the boxes on the right side of the view.