A Down-to-Earth Cloud
In all the hype about cloud computing, one principle is often obscured: If the technology is not driven by a specific need, the tremendous capabilities of the cloud are likely to be wasted.
Dewberry understood this principle from the beginning. In fact, the multidisciplinary firm never went looking for cloud technology; instead, the company has always simply sought the best way to solve its clients’ problems. This path has led to the adoption of cutting-edge resources and has positioned Dewberry as both a service provider and consultant for implementing flexible, secure, and cost-effective web solutions —Dewberry’s version of the cloud.
“Our whole initiative has been driven by our clients,” says Jeffrey Poplin, Dewberry’s associate vice president and director of GIS Consulting services. “They want to be more efficient and flexible. They have reduced budgets and less staff to maintain their current IT infrastructure. Capital expenses are a significant challenge in today’s market; the ability to have flexibility in the budget process increases their effectiveness within their customer base. So they’re looking for consulting service firms such as Dewberry to help them manage their business applications in a smarter way. By using cloud technology, we’ve been able to do that. It’s been a win-win situation.”
The cloud first emerged for Dewberry about five years ago as an internal tool for application development and testing. Working closely with its own IT department, the firm gradually began developing enterprise and web-based applications on its own virtualized servers for clients who were seeking faster access to data so they could make more informed business decisions.
As demand for these applications grew, Dewberry realized it needed to find a new solution for its own infrastructure. The firm didn’t necessarily want to keep adding servers and staff to maintain the massive amounts of data it was quickly amassing. Poplin and his team began researching other options and discovered a cloud computing firm called Skygone, based in Redlands, Calif. “The individuals who started the company had a strong GIS background,” Poplin says. “They understood our applications and the needs of our clients, and they offered an impressive amount of security and redundancy.”
Moving data and applications into Skygone’s domain freed up Dewberry’s resources to develop a greater number of practical web-based solutions. It also allowed Dewberry to expand its capabilities by tapping into Skygone’s expertise. Founded in 2006, the cloud computing powerhouse uses a variety of different platforms—including Esri, ERDAS, Intergraph, OpenGeo, OSGeo, GIS Cloud, Nobel Geoviewer and others—to create a wide range of data management solutions. “We want geospatial professionals to be able to focus on GIS and their business and not have to focus on architecture, load balancing, and all the technical aspects of data hosting,” explains Ryan Hughes, co-founder of Skygone.
Hughes says companies that leverage cloud resources benefit from virtually unlimited scalability and flexibility (the name Skygone is a rough translation of the Bulgarian word for infinity). But he believes the biggest benefit is in the sharing of knowledge resources across different platforms. “When a firm is growing and needs a new service or wants to develop a web application for their clients for the first time, they don’t have to call around to all the different reps to learn about each product. They can call one company that knows a lot about all the different products and will provide informed, unbiased recommendations. They can try out three or four different systems and work with an experienced consultant to find the best solution.”
Dewberry has tapped its cloud capabilities to develop applications such as the Survey Management and Reporting Tool, or SMART—a web-based geospatial information system for end-to-end managing and reporting of field survey activity. The tool pulls from a variety of data sources to provide real-time information on known hazards and environmental factors that crews will face on a jobsite, along with other practical information about the area. It also allows for real-time project management through scheduling, reporting and analytical features.
Likewise, when the NOAA Pacific Services Center needed access to real-time spatial data to improve emergency operations in response to flash flooding, Dewberry was able to quickly pull together its resources to create a tool that converts real-time atmospheric and hydrological data into a mapping environment for display and analysis.
Web-based applications have been in such high demand that the company has expanded its cloud platform to become a reseller of Amazon Web Services. It is also developing mobile applications. “Through smartphones and other mobile devices, we can give our clients immediate access to information so they can make better decisions much faster,” Poplin says.
According to Hughes, these capabilities are driving a new trend in software. “One of the big changes is that software is becoming less CPU based and more consumption-based, which makes it easier for more users to access what once would have been very expensive, high-end tools,” he says.
For example, it’s now possible for users to access the full functionality of robust CPU-driven desktop programs, such as Esri ArcGIS and ERDAS Imagine, along with other enterprise applications, through a single dashboard on an iPad. “The true power of all this is connecting enterprise-level, multitier applications in a more flexible way,” Hughes says.
Both Hughes and Poplin believe the demand for cloud services will continue to grow as organizations see the benefits and overcome their security concerns. “Security is a two-way street between the cloud provider and the client,” Poplin says. “You have to take a close look at the cloud provider and the type of infrastructure and controls they have and make sure they comply with federal and industry regulations. As long as the solution has the correct architecture, the data will be secure. But the client also has complete control over how they implement security and policy regulations, so we have to help educate them on those aspects of data security.”
Hughes advises firms not to get caught up in the esoteric idea of the cloud. “It’s about developing applications and making them scalable,” he says. “It’s about increasing flexibility and accessibility, and providing new services without a huge investment in infrastructure. The cloud is simply a tool that makes the solution work.”