Every Cloud has a silver lining -- Only “GIS as a Service” has Potential to Meet Growing Demand for Geospatial Technology

Every Cloud has a silver lining; Only “GIS as a Service” has Potential to Meet Growing Demand for Geospatial Technology

By Philip O'Doherty, CEO eSpatial

There is a growing consensus that the future of software is tied to cloud computing and software as a service. Someday, all software will run online and clunky desktop applications will be a distant memory. In a recent article for Directions Magazine I explored “How Will GIS Companies Weather the Gathering Cloud Computing Storm?” and concluded that cloud computing and the software as a service (SaaS) model would be the push that finally delivers GIS capabilities to a much wider corporate audience beyond its existing niche markets.

One of the big problems with GIS today is that it has failed to fulfil its true potential outside of its core markets such as the Government, Utilities, Telecommunications and Oil & Gas sectors. There is no doubt that GIS can provide value to more users and organizations than the market serves today, but its uptake by the wider business community is still disappointing. Those of us who know GIS understand that the capability to analyze data in relation to its location and visualize the results in easily understood maps, charts and reports ultimately increases the value and utility of that information. But still today GIS usage is constrained by factors such as excessive cost, unnecessary complexity and lack of accessibility. Integrating location intelligence into enterprise and line-of-business applications for across the board use is just too difficult and expensive using existing client-server GIS software tools.

Despite the constraints there is growing demand for GIS both within and beyond its existing niches, and some of that demand is driven by the availability of low-end GIS online; e.g. consumer mapping tools such as Google Earth and Bing Maps. They first gained traction in the consumer and hobby spaces but are they really equipped for large scale GIS? Whilst providing their mapping technologies free of charge for many use cases, Companies report that not insignificant costs can apply when used for internal business purposes.

However Google and Bing have at the very least been great for raising awareness of the potential there is in GIS, and have shown the way in terms of accessibility and ease-of-use. Because of them the power of location information is better understood by a wider-audience and it won’t be long before geospatial capabilities will become a base-level expectation for more information systems, and users will demand increasing functionality and ease-of-access to all data sources.

More GIS
There is clearly untapped demand for geospatially-enabled solutions that bring benefits within its established markets, but the potential uses for GIS go far beyond existing industry verticals. To address all these markets successfully the industry needs a different approach than that of the last 20 years; an approach that tackles the problems of cost, complexity and accessibility. SaaS and cloud computing is the obvious answer and it won’t be too long before SaaS-based solutions become the dominant delivery method for geospatial capabilities in enterprise and line-of-business information systems.

But what can users expect from Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) in the cloud or GIS-as-a-Service? Will it be just like a webified version of current desktop GIS products or will it be more like a super-charged consumer mapping solution? At eSpatial we believe GIS-as-a-Service has got to be more to bridge the yawning gap between consumer mapping applications and traditional corporate GIS, while also including an element of business intelligence. We take it for granted that the starting point for serving the needs of more GIS users in more organizations is a full-function GIS platform similar to that which is available for specialist users on the desktop today. But rather than just mimicking today’s client-server solutions, GIS-as-a-Service has the potential to offer a lot more customers, a lot more GIS. We see it quickly becoming the platform that delivers multiple geospatial business intelligence (GeoBI) applications, while offering plug-and-play integration with enterprise applications, industry-specific business solutions that users can select on a service-by-service basis and much, much more in terms of data to underpin the services.

At eSpatial we look at GIS-as-a-Service as a multi-layered offering with tailored business/industry GIS applications sitting on top of broad GIS functionality and a robust GIS platform all delivered in the cloud via a SaaS infrastructure that has all the security, reliability, scalability and more that a user would expect were the applications running on site.

Data and Data Integration
Anyone who knows anything about GIS will quickly realise that one of the biggest challenges with GIS-as-a-Service is data. It’s already one of the key challenges facing GIS in the client-server environment: Data needs to be stored, managed and updated; it needs to be integrated, cleansed and consolidated; and non-spatial data needs to be geocoded so it can be applied to maps and analysed in relation to other geospatial data. Because of data’s overarching importance, data integration is a primary design consideration for GIS-as-a-Service, which needs to provide versatile and deep data integration capabilities to support the wide range of requirements of enterprise customers.

In many aspects cloud computing eases a significant amount of the pain regarding data by bringing flexibility to the table as never before – for example allowing access to a range of geocoding engines to support customers with varying geocoding requirements, enabling them to select the appropriate capability for their situation – and making data sharing and data integration a lot easier than in traditional environments. In other ways however some sceptics see SaaS as further complicating the data issue by raising the spectre of security and privacy, despite the many papers and reports that demonstrate data is probably more secure in the cloud than it is most private data centers.

GIS Cloud Platform & Functionality
The GIS platform on which GIS-as-a-Service sits needs to have a lot, if not all, of what today’s client-server and desktop GIS offerings provide, but delivered and accessed in a radically different way. So just like any geographical information system GIS-as-a-Service needs to be able to capture, store, analyze, manage, and present data that is linked to location, allowing users to create interactive queries, analyze spatial information, edit data, maps, and easily present the results of all these operations. So far so GIS; but where GIS-as-a-Service differs is that all the functionality above is fully accessible through a standard web browser and comes ready-to-go with essential base data as part of the package.

And that’s just the start of what SaaS enables. GIS on its own is useful, but its real power emerges when it is integrated with other business applications – beside data this is the area that has presented some of the biggest hurdles for organizations looking to adopt GIS up to now. Integrating existing desktop and client-server GIS with accounting, customer relationship management or planning applications has not always been easy. Long project lead times add significantly to the cost of GIS and in the past have made it difficult for organizations to justify investment.

As with data the cloud paradigm and web technologies have dramatically simplified application integration in other fields and will do the same for GIS-as-a-Service. All of a sudden it’s a lot easier to offer pre-packaged integrations for applications and platforms such as Salesforce.com and SharePoint, as well as easily configured APIs to enable rapid integration with pretty much any business application including enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), business intelligence (BI) and even traditional client-server GIS applications.

On top of this the cloud phenomenon allows for collaboration in a way that just isn’t possible when we are all using isolated silos of GIS functionality. SaaS enables collaborative development of easily accessible industry-focused solutions that dovetail with the specific business processes that are often unique to a sector. The flexibility that is provided by GIS-as-a-Service means that businesses are no longer stuck with a one-size-fits-all solution as tailored applications are developed faster and deployed on the same GIS platform to be accessed by all subscribers.

This might not sound too radical for a growing band of corporate IT users who have grown used to SaaS applications such as Saleforce.com, Netsuite or Webex, but if GIS-as-a-Service is to succeed it will need to meet the expectations that are being set by the more established SaaS and business software providers. Part of meeting the expectations will mean delivering a plethora of services such as geospatial business intelligence or location intelligence tools that go well beyond basic GIS.

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