Frequently Asked Questions


Q: How is taxonomy managed in a shared system?
A: Identifications (optionally) reference taxonomy, but taxon names are not directly applied to specimens as Identifications. Taxonomy, therefore, strives to be “pure” names, leaving the complexities of applying names to specimens in Identifications. This arrangement:

  • Removes ambiguity in determining what is “proper” taxonomy
  • Allows more formality than other systems
  • Allows us to use external sources of taxonomy

Any namestring (“taxon name” or “scientific name”) may have any number of classifications (“higher taxonomy”), and these may be drawn from Globalnames.org. Arctos taxonomy is therefore a synthesis of all “taxonomy projects” that contribute to GlobalNames, plus local data. Curating taxonomy in Arctos is theoretically unnecessary, although as of this writing all collections continue to do so due to the lack of responsive and useful editing capabilities in the various remote sources.

Q: I hear Arctos is really complicated. What’s up with that?
A: Arctos is complicated, as are the data it strives to accurately represent. There is a steep learning curve to understanding all functionality. Basic functionality – such as that available from other collections management systems – is pretty simple, and we think we do a pretty good job of making it intuitive. Perhaps more noticeable is the level of precision required to use Arctos. Rather than (mis!)typing a string, you may have to pick a value from a list, or you may have to supply metadata qualifying your assertions. We strongly believe that this is a necessary part of managing the specimens and data with which we have been entrusted, and thus worth the effort to learn this system.

Q: Are these live data?
A: Almost. Live data are stored in a highly normalized relational structure – fabulous for organization, not so hot for query. Some data are then optimized for query performance by way of Database Triggers. Presentation data are generally less than one minute stale.

Q: Is there a limit on the number of records I can return in a search?
A: We impose no strict limits. Queries almost always take less than 5 seconds. Getting the data to your browser often then becomes a bottleneck. If you have a reasonably fast browser and connection, it should be possible to return at least 100,000 basic records with a single query. We have no idea why you’d want to. Let us know if you find something excessively slow.

Q: What’s a VPD?
A: A Virtual Private Database allows us to share resources, like programmers and hardware, along with some data, such as Taxonomy and Agents. We all end up with more than we could afford by ourselves, and operators generally can’t tell that they’re in a shared environment.

Q: Are there specific system or browser requirements?
A: We attempt to keep the client-side of Arctos applications as generic as possible, but we have made some exceptions:

  • JavaScript: We have used JavaScript throughout the applications. Your browser must be JavaScript enabled to access all the features of such applications.
  • Cookies: We use cookies only to set and preserve user preferences and user rights. In order to benefit from all but the most basic public features, you must enable cookies.
  • Pop-ups: Users may wish to enable pop-ups. Some informational windows use pop-ups. We promise to only “pop up” things you ask for.
    Operators must enable pop-ups. Many browsers block this, sometimes cryptically, by default.

All applications have been tested in Firefox. We highly recommend all users upgrade to the latest release of Firefox, available from Mozilla. Most of Arctos should work most of the time in most other browsers. Let us know if you have trouble accessing this site in your browser, and we’ll fix it if we can.

Q: What’s Media? Can I store images or video in Arctos?
A: Media, loosely defined, is anything you can produce a URI for. Web pages, Internet-accessible images, and documents stored on FTP sites are all potentially Media. Media may form relationships with any “node” in Arctos.

Arctos proper offers little in the way of storage. However, we have a partnership with the Texas Advanced Computing Center which provides us access to essentially unlimited storage space. Arctos currently links to around 10 terabytes of Media, primarily high-resolution images of ALA herbarium sheets and historical MVZ images, both on TACC’s servers.

Q: Why Oracle and ColdFusion?
A: Because they work. We’ve tried many other solutions along the way. Oracle is rock-solid and stable, and allows us to do things like share/control data via VPDs, maintain current data to our query environments, and sleep at night. ColdFusion is a very robust rapid development environment that fits our programming style perfectly while providing very close to 100% uptime and reliability. On a more practical level, implementing an open-source solution would necessitate hiring at least one additional person to mange software, while compromising stability and security.

Q: How does Arctos compare with Specify?
A: While sharing a common ancestor, Arctos and Specify now differ at almost every level – software, hardware, security model, data model, development strategy, and support community. See comparison.

Q: What about security and backups?
A: Arctos has multiple levels of security. A lightweight application security package controls access to forms, while Oracle partitions data by user, roles, and context, and provides auditing. Incremental backup logs are maintained on mirrored disks, and daily backups are maintained in 3 geographically separate secure locations.