Browser Plugins Moving to Legacy

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Starting with Chrome 42 which was pushed out over the last couple of weeks, a large breaking change was the defaulting NPAPI Plugins to disabled. This is in line with the deprecation notice at the Chromium project page.

Although plugin vendors are working hard to move to alternate technologies, a small number of users still rely on plugins that haven’t completed the transition yet. We will provide an override for advanced users (via chrome://flags/#enable-npapi) and enterprises (via Enterprise Policy) to temporarily re-enable NPAPI (via the page action UI) while they wait for mission-critical plugins to make the transition

For many of Hexagon Geospatial customers who rely on the ECWP and 3D Plugin, this sudden change resulted in lots of confusion since applications suddenly began redirecting to the plugin website to reinstall. Many users don’t realize that Chrome updates silently so unfortunately, users were unaware of the impact until it was too late.

As per the Chromium notice above, we are now in the deprecation phase of all NPAPI Plugins. For the short term, the immediate workaround is

  1. Re-enable chrome://flags/#enable-npapi
    chromium
  2. Restarting Chrome
  3. Ensure the ECWP & 3D Browser plugin is listed in chrome://plugins and remains allowed
    chrome2
  4. Reload existing Mapviewer systems and previous functionality will be restored

Our current dependency on the NPAPI is for two purposes that can be addressed separately.

ECWP

ECWP is Hexagon Geospatial’ s patented image streaming protocol from ERDAS APOLLO. It offers progressive rendering for fantastic display speed and offloads processing from the backend server to scale to a massive level of concurrency no matter what the size of the imagery (terapixel+ !). Compressed data blocks are streamed to the client who then decompress, reproject and render to screen rather than performing these operations server-side.

When ECWP was first introduced circa 2002 there was simply no way to deliver terapixel sized geospatial images to a web client in a high performance manner. Server hardware was expensive (CPU and Storage!) and very slow in comparison to what’s available today. ECWP was developed to meet this need and has been very successful delivering to web clients through the use of client-side plugins, however now in 2015 we have both the hardware and server-side software to deliver geospatial imagery in a variety of different protocols without relying on ECWP. ECWP remains relevant particularly for streaming into Desktop / Mobile Geospatial Applications where receiving a data stream (rather than a JPG) may be crucial however for browser based delivery, OGC WMTS should be used.

ECWP supports streaming both ECW and JPEG2000 formats which are renowned for its challenging processing requirements in order to obtain fast rendering speed especially when rendering in a progressive manner. Although recent developments in compiling C++ to Javascript through projects such as ASM JS and Emscripten show promise, the critical piece for the decompression of wavelet streams is the availability of SIMD Instructions, something that remains unavailable but under development. Hexagon Geospatial will continue monitoring this space and explore other options such as PNaCL in the near future however PNaCL shares its own problems as its Chrome specific. WMTS is really the only Browser agnostic delivery method that works everywhere.

The ERDAS APOLLO Product team has been steadily improving WMTS delivery performance over the last 4 years and can deliver JPG/PNG tiles as fast as other solutions using pre-cached tile caches. This market leading performance ensures performance will not necessarily decrease by moving customers to WMTS and if anything, users may not notice the difference depending on the Mapviewer client.

3D Browser Plugin

First introduced in 2015, the 3D component was bundled with the existing ECWP Plugin to add 3D capabilities to the Geospatial Portal client in the Platform Suite. The 3D component reuses technology from the Hexagon owned MyVR Software and like ECWP, integrates with Firefox and Chrome via the NPAPI technology and are equally impacted by the NPAPI Deprecation. Unlike ECWP restrictions however MyVR is able to take advantage of new HTML5 / WebGL / Emscripten technology to support a plugin-less environment and will certainly form a core part of the next release.

Conclusion

Longer term once NPAPI is deprecated entirely from Chrome 45, the only solution to continue using the current Hexagon Geospatial plugin is to use Firefox or Internet Explorer. But this approach remains short-sighted as both alternate browser teams have also indicated plugins are also being phased out.

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About Author

Chris Tweedie

Chris Tweedie directs all stages of the product lifecycle for ERDAS APOLLO and ECW technologies. He has been with Hexagon Geospatial for 6 years in Technical Sales and Product Management roles for what is now the Provider Suite. Not one to shy away from getting his hands dirty, he enjoys squeezing the most value out of the products built in the Australian development office including ERDAS APOLLO, ECW/JP2 SDK, GeoCompressor and ECW Plugins.

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