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Surveying GIS: The Power of the Cloud

January 25, 2011
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“Hey you, get on my cloud!” That seems to be a very popular buzz line these days, especially in the corporate information technology community. The term cloud computing uses the word “cloud” as a metaphor for the Internet--sort of. In some ways, it is a “back to the future” technology that mimics mainframe architecture by providing hardware, software and data through subscription services. But it is far more powerful.

The term cloud computing can mean different things to different people. IBM calls it the “workload optimizer.” But the more accepted understanding is access to both data centers and computing power on the Web. The cloud is typically marketed as a service, with the most popular being the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), a Web service that allows the user to assign an application to as many “compute units” as you need on demand (similar to cable TV on-demand programming). The Amazon cloud has become so dominant in IT circles that references to “the cloud” are assumed to refer to EC2.<

Regardless of the service used, the cloud as an entity has profound implications. In 10 years, the PC work station you are using today might be considered an antique.

New devices like the Windows Phone and the Apple iPad and iPod touch are built almost entirely on “cloud” architecture, and the apps developed for these devices−applications or programs that are ready to use and usually downloadable−are exploding onto the market. There are already thousands of apps floating around in cyberspace. Many are freeware. Others have a charge associated with them that typically shows up on your cellular phone bill. Demand is driving development, so more of them are coming online every day.

The big advantage to working in the cloud is the ability to use computing power that you don’t need to maintain. And the available computing power is expanding exponentially all the time. According to Moore’s Law, the number of transistors on a chip doubles every two years. As a result, the capabilities are practically limitless.

Most of us use some form of cloud computing already. Data centers for storage and access represent part of “the cloud.” More and more cellular phones offer cloud access. What makes cloud computing attractive is the reduction in expenditure for capital improvements. The down side, of course, is that it makes the user dependent on a third party for services.

Esri’s cloud. 

Geographic information systems are obviously a natural fit for cloud technology. Many of us have been using cloud-based resources for some time through readily available simple Web tools like Google Maps and ArcGIS Explorer. In the past, you could do just about anything but publish your own data with these tools. Now even that hurdle has been removed.

Esri says it has a “cloud-ready strategy” that has been in development for several years. Figure 1 shows how Esri is marketing its GIS services using “cloud” technology. The company has been offering its ArcServer in a SaaS (Software as a Service) mode in the Amazon EC2 environment for more than a year. Esri’s cloud business model includes the goal of making ArcServer a “one-stop shopping experience.” The company runs and maintains the server environment and offers subscriptions (licenses) for one, three or 12 months with various renewal options. Another increasingly popular platform in the GIS development community is Microsoft’s Windows Azure.

These highly publicized products developed by corporate giants might not seem important to the average POB reader at first glance. But they are. These and other tools offer small businesses and agencies access to the same computer power previously only available to organizations that could afford large capital outlays.

Through the cloud, the full power of computing technology is now available to everyone.

Of course, availability doesn’t necessarily dictate use. Up to now, surveyors have chiefly been consumers of Web data and applications. The result of some of our work is housed in public databases, but we don’t typically offer our data as a product. We as surveyors tend to “silo” our data for our own exclusive use, in the parlance of database managers. Yet data sharing has always been at the nucleus of any geographical information system. Will we, as a profession, be willing to take that next step and become data providers to the cloud?

Modern smartphones and other electronic devices are designed to capitalize on cloud technology.

Housing data on the Web in an application format is prohibitively expensive for most small firms. Cloud technology is a real game changer. It is now possible to put your own authoritative data on the Web as a product or service with little additional capital investment. Cloud computing offers an opportunity for internal or peer-to-peer marketing for a modest investment. Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) products like Geoserver allow you to make your own data and maps available on the Internet, and you can also integrate your data with existing Web tools like Google Maps, Microsoft Virtual Earth and Esri ArcGIS. In addition to these and other “cloud-friendly” products that are rapidly popping up, there are consulting firms ready to offer their services, as well.

But the biggest reason to embrace the cloud might be that a fully implemented cloud deployment is virtually “crash-proof” and can be accessed from anywhere using any device. All you need is a connection service. Through a cloud service, all of your applications would be available 24/7 wherever you are. One major advantage of working on the cloud is that multiple users at entirely different locations can work on the same project simultaneously. Many municipalities and private companies are already hosting geospatial data online.

It is hardly a secret that the survey profession is undergoing change. The “traditional” business model for surveyors has been impacted by modern technology like laser scanning and machine control. Some reports indicate that firms that adapt to new technologies will be more successful in the future than those that don’t. We will leave that debate to others for the time being.

At this point, however, it is probably fair to say that the cloud is pretty much whatever you want it to be. It offers a multitude of opportunities for those who wish to take advantage of them. 

Related Links

• ArcGIS Server Home Page: www.esri.com/software/arcgis/arcgisserver/index.html

• Amazon EC2: http://aws.amazon.com/ec2/

• Geoserver: http://geoserver.org/display/GEOS/Welcome

• Esri ArcNews, Fall 2010: www.esri.com/news/arcnews/fall10articles/tofc-fall10.html

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