Vishful thinking…

Deployment hassles with the ‘black box’ MXD file format

Posted in ArcGIS, ESRI by viswaug on July 18, 2009

The MXD file format has always remained a ‘black box’ with its proprietary binary file format which cannot be opened or modified without ArcMap / ArcCatalog / ArcObjects. It’s even got a voodoo doctor that magically treats all its ailments, the ‘MXD Doctor’ software utility. This is fine in the most of the desktop world where the user most probably has access to ArcMap / ArcCatalog. But in the world of server applications that use ArcGIS Server, it does become quite a hassle. The problem occurs during the deployment phase. During the development and the demo phase, we might have prepared the MXD file with all the layers referencing FeatureClasses in the development / demo  geodatabase. But when you move the MXD to the production environment, the layers should now be modified to reference the FeatureClasses from the production geodatabase. Well, to switch the FeatureClass data source reference for the layers in the MXD, you will need access to ArcMap / ArcCatalog. IMHO, I don’t believe that we should be installing ArcMap / ArcCatalog in the production server environment, especially for a reason like the one mentioned above. Installing a full-blown desktop GIS software on a server environment might not make the IT folks very happy and might open up / expose security vulnerabilities. Given the binary nature of the MXD file, I can’t open up the file in a text editor and switch the data sources. And AFAIK, I don’t believe that there is a tool / script that will help make the switch of the data sources without the need for ArcMAP / ArcCatalog. Also, it is not just the MXD file format, the other ESRI file format like ‘.sde’ and ‘.gds’ etc all are in a binary format which makes deployment more painful that it should really be.