Report of the IRAF Users' Committee -- March 1996
Report of the IRAF Users' Committee
The IRAF Users' Committee (IUC) met at
NOAO on February 6. We would like to
thank the IRAF staff for their informative presentations. We realize that
preparations for the meeting and attending the meeting are both time
consuming and we appreciate their efforts.
Current members of the IUC (all of whom were present at the meeting) are:
Jeff Pier (chair) 1993-95 U S Naval Obs firstname.lastname@example.org
Peter Eisenhardt 1993-95 JPL email@example.com
Andrea Prestwich 1995-97 CfA firstname.lastname@example.org
Bill Romanishin 1994-96 Univ of Oklahoma email@example.com
Bill Sparks 1994-96 STScI firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Walton 1994-96 Cal State Northridge email@example.com
Want to get Involved?
Peter Eisenhardt and Jeff Pier are due to rotate off the committee this
year. If you are an IRAF user and are interested in serving on the
committee, or if you know of someone else who you think would be a good
representative of the user community, please contact
Jeff Pier or
The IUC is charged with representing the IRAF user community interests
in future IRAF developments and in advising the IRAF project on priorities
and schedules of releases. In order to be truly representative, we
are seeking input from the IRAF user community. PLEASE feel free to
contact any committee member and let the member know your concerns about
IRAF, your hopes, your frustrations, what you like about it, what you
don't like, what you'd like to see it do that it can't, etc., etc.
The whole idea of this process is to make sure that IRAF is responsive
to the needs of the community. Your input does make a difference!
Staffing: Kudos and Concerns
The overriding impression of the committee is that the IRAF project is
seriously under-staffed. We believe that the problem is becoming critical.
1995 saw a loss of 1-1/2 FTE's from the IRAF staff. Only five years ago
there were 9 FTE's. There are now only five full-time IRAF staff members
who are supplemented by fractional time from another three NOAO staff
members (whose contributions total less than one additional FTE).
Meanwhile, the requirements placed upon the staff, as determined
by any of a number of metrics (e.g., number of users, number of sites
supported, number of packages/tasks, lines of code, complexity of code,
number of architectures supported) continue to grow apace. We see no
Upcoming software development demands to support Gemini and the Infrared
detectors will have a significant impact upon IRAF staff requirements, and
the IUC wants to stress that these projects must provide the IRAF project
with additional staffing.
The committee can't help but be disappointed in the release schedule
realized for IRAF upgrades and in non-delivery of such enhancements as
the X11 Graphical User Interface for science applications. The root
cause of this is insufficient staffing, combined with unrealistic
expectations of what this staff can reasonably accomplish. The
committee is very impressed with the caliber and talent on the staff.
They are all extremely hard-working, dedicated, and conscientious.
They are performing Herculean tasks and have made significant strides
this year (see below). But the committee is concerned that the effort
they have already invested in some areas (e.g. on the GUI's) may be
wasted, because this work had to be set aside before release to address
various urgent demands, and such demands seem to be on the increase.
Either additional staff must be added, or promises of what the IRAF
group will deliver must be scaled back.
The good news is that this small core of dedicated programmers continues
to have a positive outlook. They gave the committee the impression that
they love their jobs and eagerly look forward to continuing to provide
the astronomical community with quality software to meet ever increasing
RECOMMENDATION: IRAF staffing needs to be maintained AT LEAST at the
level of eight FTE's. We STRONGLY recommend that two additional software
positions be filled immediately: one a specialist in systems software, the
other in science applications software.
IRAF continues to be the most heavily used resource provided and
maintained by NOAO, and it is certainly the most cost effective in
terms of the service it provides to the astronomical community per
dollar expended. Although exact counts are elusive, best estimates are
that IRAF is installed at approximately 1500 different sites
around the word and that roughly 5000 users see a "cl> " prompt
on their computer monitor on a regular basis.
Although IRAF is now well over a decade old, it continues to keep
abreast of advancing computer hardware and new astronomical detectors and
techniques. IRAF remains at the forefront of software/algorithmic
development for astronomical data analysis and reduction.
It is worth noting that a sizeable fraction of the IRAF team's effort is
directed not just towards "Reduction and Analysis" of astronomical data,
but also towards providing valuable support for instrumentation and for
the acquisition and archiving of data. Some examples:
- The IRAF Control Environment (ICE) is used at KPNO and at a dozen
or so other observatories for instrument control and data acquisition.
- The CCDPHOT package for CCD numerical aperture photometry.
- CCDTEST program for debugging CCD controllers.
- Save The Bits (STB) archiving of CCD data has been underway since
August 1993. The Terabyte limit was passed in December 1995.
- Software to help astronomers prepare for observing runs (FINDER and
much of the new astrometry package software)
- Maintaining a weather archive; developing software for the KPNO
- A major effort will be getting underway in 1996 to specify and
develop software to support the new generation CCD detector: the
8K square CCD array/Mosaic.
Highlights of 1995
Despite staffing limitations, a rather large number of significant
accomplishments were realized in 1995. A few of the highlights:
- Release of IRAF Version 2.10.4 for Sun (SunOS and Solaris), DEC
Alpha (Digital UNIX) and PC (Linux).
- The Port of IRAF to PC/Linux has proven to be hugely successful and
popular. The port was released in late 1995, and in the first three
months of availability almost 250 ftp downloads were recorded. This
exceeds the number of downloads for all other platforms (except Sun)
for the entire year of 1995! Installation on a PC running Linux is
very straightforward and takes only a few minutes.
- Very substantial additions have been made to IRAF's World Wide Web home
page (http://iraf.noao.edu) including
searching capability, links to IRAF Help,
task parameter changes, FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions),
etc. The IRAF WWW home page is now a very popular site, and its
existence undoubtedly relieves the staff of a substantial fraction
of user support queries.
- The distribution of IRAF software and documentation via CDROM,
introduced late in 1995, had shipped to over 50 customers by February,
- Significant progress has been made on the IRAF Astrometry package,
including the collaborative efforts with the UK to incorporate some
of the Starlink software tasks (especially SLALIB) into IRAF. The
new release of the IMMATCH package is a very nice application of
SLALIB (as well as much new IRAF) software and which looks like it
will be very useful and popular.
IUC Priorities for 1996
- Release V2.11
The first priority, from the committee's perspective, is to get the new
version of IRAF (V2.11) out to the community in the first half of 1996.
This release is long overdue! The community has been hearing for some
time about some of the nice new features which will be available "in the
next release" and we fear that their patience is being tried rather severely.
This release will include the FITS image kernel, WCS function drivers, and
the SLALIB library.
The committee is very concerned that if V2.11 is not released before
summer, demands upon the IRAF staff to provide support for specifying and
developing software for the new CCD Mosaic detector (due for on-telescope
engineering tests this summer) will push the V2.11 release efforts to the
back burner (AGAIN!).
- Platform Support
The committee notes that a number of previously "supported" platforms
seem to be have been orphaned in recent years. Specifically, AIX, HP-UX,
DEC Ultrix, and SGI IRIX have received scant attention from IRAF. Releases
of patches and X11IRAF have been made available largely only for the most
heavily used IRAF platforms (Suns running both SunOS and Solaris) and
newer platforms (DEC Alpha OSF/Digital Unix and PC Linux).
Meanwhile, a substantial fraction of the user community is still running
IRAF essentially as it existed in 1993 or 1994, still dealing with xterm
and its hang-up bug while running plot tasks, etc. Furthermore, the plans
for release of V2.11 are to port first to Suns, DEC Alphas and PCs,
those very platforms which are already most up-to-date in terms of IRAF
support. Ports to the other platforms would follow "in a few months
time" -- placing this community of users even further behind the times.
Of course, we see the logic in providing new releases first to the most
heavily used platforms but we hope that the minority of orphaned users
will not have to wait much longer.
We feel that IRAF should make a sincere effort to support platforms
which it has led the community to believe it will support. If they
are unable to do so, they should announce that support for such-and-such
a platform will be dropped -- allowing ample time for users to plan their
future computer hardware/software needs well in advance. It is simply
not fair to neglect users who bought their present computers at least partly
because of IRAF platform support. Perhaps even worse is the perceived
uncertainty about continuing support for some platforms for those who
are contemplating their next computer upgrade.
V2.11 should be released for ALL supported platforms.
X11IRAF should be released for ALL supported platforms.
- Open IRAF
The IRAF team has long recognized that it cannot be insular. The software
framework developed and maintained by IRAF provides a wonderful vehicle
for other software developers to take advantage of and to build upon.
The amount of software running within the IRAF environment, but developed
outside of the IRAF group (though with their help and cooperation) is now
nearly as substantial (in terms of lines of code) as IRAF itself.
The ability to customize/enhance the IRAF environment will become much easier
with the advent of "Open IRAF." This initiative will make it easier
for a user to (1) invoke individual tasks from a shell, (2) combine IRAF
with non-IRAF software, and (3) more easily develop software (in other
languages such as Fortran, C or C++) and incorporate it into the local IRAF
The committee strongly supports the Open IRAF Initiative, and believes that
it must proceed rapidly to ensure IRAF's viability in today's rapidly changing
- Graphical User Interface (GUI)
Considerable headway has been made towards making IRAF accessible through
GUIs in addition to the traditional command line interface. X11IRAF
has been released for some platforms, and provides a very nice image
display (XImtool), a significantly enhanced xterm/graphics window (XGterm),
a tape monitoring window (XTapemon), and a library/toolkit and "widget
server" for developing GUIs.
A lot of effort has also gone into the development of prototype GUI
interfaces to some of the IRAF packages: SPECTOOL, XAPPHOT, XHELP and XRV.
Unfortunately, this development effort has had to be put on the back
burner because of staffing shortages and higher priority demands. It is
a shame that the user community is denied the use of these user friendly
interfaces, especially after so much effort went into their development.
We urge the staff to complete their initial efforts here and make these
nifty interfaces available to the user community.
- Management Plan
The committee is very favorably impressed with the IRAF management and we
feel that significant improvement has been attained in the past couple of
years in the area of project management. Nonetheless, the IUC has been
pressing for some time to see a realistic, comprehensive management plan.
As we pointed out last year, it is very difficult for the committee to
assign realistic priorities unless we have some estimates of level-of-effort
required for each project. We once again request the IRAF management to
present a management plan at next year's meeting.
- Science Applications
In previous years, reports of this committee have assigned priorities
to science application software needed/desired by the community. This year,
due to the rather overwhelming constraints of staffing, many of these
priorities have received less attention (both by the IRAF staff and by
the IUC) than they deserve. We hope that additional staffing will remedy
this situation so that higher priorities may once again be assigned to
science application software.