Esri has been framing and working on a cloud platform for GIS for some time that has recently culminated in the launch of ArcGIS Online. Matt Ball corresponded with Jack Dangermond, president and founder of Esri, regarding this move toward Software as a Service (SaaS), and the impacts that it will have on the geospatial market and Esri’s customer base.
Ball: How has Esri’s software architecture evolved over time, and how does ArcGIS Online extend the functionality?
Dangermond: In the late 90s our main technology pattern was standalone Windows desktops that were networked and integrated with database servers. Today, our users continue to extensively use the desktop pattern but have also deployed approximately 100,000 GIS servers within their organizations and on the web. These enterprise GIS servers manage geospatial data and provide the foundation for enterprise applications ranging from light weight apps in browsers and mobile devices to traditional desktop applications. While the desktop continues to be very popular for GIS professionals, the GIS technology has matured into an enterprise platform that is being employed to provide access to a wider audience of users.
ArcGIS Online extends Esri’s enterprise technology by providing an integrated cloud offering. This platform implements many of our server and geospatial content management capabilities in the cloud and also offers a new and easy platform for mapping as well. Our traditional users are embracing these capabilities and integrating them into their existing system, making their data and these new capabilities for easy mapping available to users across the organization. In many ways this is a whole new market of users who want access to simple mapping and location analytics that this platform offers. We expect ArcGIS Online will rapidly grow the use of maps and geographic information within organizations. We refer to this as “Geography as a platform.”
Ball: What are the technology underpinnings of this new offering?
Dangermond: ArcGIS Online operates on cloud infrastructure offerings from Microsoft and Amazon Web Services but can also work in private clouds and data centers. Esri is providing ArcGIS Online as a subscription or SaaS based offering. In the first month we have seen thousands of user organizations register to ArcGIS Online both from our existing users as well as a whole new market of organizations who wishes to simply make maps and do locational analysis with their enterprise data.
Ball: GIS, like all data-driven systems, relies heavily on quality data to achieve its true promise. While traditionally you provided software, you’ve made significant investments in data.
Dangermond: In recent years, we have made large investments in the content part of our product. We have included ready to use authoritative content as a significant component of the system. These include basemaps, demographic data, and imagery delivered as services for our users. We have also taken the approach of integrating the best available public content with a number of commercial and Esri created data sets. This content is often shared by our end users in a “community approach” which both integrates and harmonizes data from multiple sources while at the same time supporting users retaining the ownership of the content. Basically, users who participate share their content, get to use the integrated services, and maintain the intellectual property rights of any content brought into this system.
Ball: The SaaS business model extends the audience, but also offers some of the functionality of your desktop product at a lower price point. Was it a difficult decision to make the investment in this new technology, given that it’s a bit of a change from your prior business model?
Dangermond: No. The new cloud/web pattern will make GIS more widely available and represents a new GIS product type. We have done this before. For example, with the introduction of ArcView, we introduced less expensive products that replicate some of the functionality of ArcInfo at a much lower cost. At the same time, we added more capabilities to ArcInfo. ArcGIS online clearly introduces a lower cost point of entry and will result in GIS growing exponentially. We very much intend to continue making this functionality an integrated part of our users existing system, not a replacement. This will help our users leverage their existing systems across their organizations.
Ball: Any business model change is a bit of a gamble, is there a danger to your core business from this change?
Dangermond: We don’t think so. ArcGIS Online is not a replacement platform. It’s a fundamental extension to ArcGIS that we are providing our users. It integrates cloud computing and related capabilities into users existing systems. It is technically designed to seamlessly integrate with Enterprise GIS systems and allows users to easily leverage cloud resources in a low risk and affordable manner.
Desktop users can directly use these cloud resources as well as host and serve their content to others. The geospatial content management and sharing capabilities represent a new way for organizations to collaborate and integrate their information. This will fundamentally shift the focus from doing GIS within one unit of an organization to the concept of the sharing of services and work flows across organizations. This platform will reduce costs and radically leverage our users’ abilities to bring their work together. Finally I can’t emphasize enough that our users will use this environment as their way to make their information accessible to a whole new class of users.
Ball: How does ArcGIS Online address both your current market and new markets for your technology?
Dangermond: ArcGIS Online is an enterprise mapping platform. Beyond mapping, it provides other services like global geocoding, routing, and ability to integrate/mash-up data from multiple sources. These maps can be created by normal people, using a host of open data types such as csv files. They don’t require an expert. This will make mapping more essential and a powerful common language across many industries.
For the traditional GIS users, ArcGIS Online provides geospatial content management in an elastic cloud infrastructure for hosting and easy integration with the ArcGIS server environment. Users can discover and view any of hundreds of thousands of map services in this cloud environment. Users can also easily create services map products on their desktop and easily create feature and tile services completely processed and hosted in the cloud. These services can then be directly accessed by all of the Esri web and mobile apps, and via apps created using Esri’s open APIs.
The second market for ArcGIS Online is what we call location analytics in the enterprise. We see a very big market here, one that will rapidly develop our system. The “location analysis” extends to more substantial Business Intelligence (BI) platforms. ArcGIS based mapping has already been integrated with Cognos at a large number of Cognos user organizations. This capability can be done either with ArcGIS Online or with an on-premise server. Users are making maps of their sales data, marketing data, events, resulting in dramatically better understanding of BI data. This capability is also being provided for Microsoft Office and SharePoint environments. ArcGIS Online provides location analytics solutions for the BI community at a low cost.
The third market is web developers. ArcGIS Online provides this market with consumer focused mapping services and provides a stronger and richer suite of APIs for developers. To date, we have found this platform very attractive to the web developer who wants to put a map in their app. ArcGIS Online makes it easy with many configurable apps, templates, and open APIs for developing and deploying applications.
Ball: On the enterprise integration front, your collaboration with Microsoft is significant. How does ArcGIS Online integrate with Microsoft products?
Dangermond: Esri has worked in close collaboration with Microsoft to integrate ArcGIS Online with the Office suite; Excel, PowerPoint, and Sharepoint. Basically, Microsoft Office products function as native clients to the system.
Excel users can easily make maps of their spreadsheet by simply associating it with ArcGIS Online. Most spreadsheets have some kind of geographic reference such as state name, city name, zip codes or street address. ArcGIS Online automatically geocodes or georeferences the spreadsheet data and creates a map using a variety of map making styles and functions. This is done in exactly the same way as making a chart in Excel. Users can also easily share their maps by automatically creating web map services hosted in the ArcGIS Online system.
ArcGIS is also integrated with PowerPoint. A Web map in ArcGIS Online can be directly inserted into PowerPoint presentations. While in PowerPoint, users can interact with these dynamic and linked maps.
Ball: Much is being made of the online “Map Wars” between Google and Apple, with even Amazon re-entering online mapping with a recent acquisition. What is your view of this battle, and how does ArcGIS Online differentiate?
Dangermond: We recognize that mapping and location based servers are becoming pervasive in the consumer internet and device space. We believe this is a good thing for our field as it drives great spatial literacy and understanding. While ArcGIS Online apps and services are increasingly replicating the consumer app experience, our focus is on the professional GIS and enterprise community. This work, while in some ways similar, requires different data models and functionality. It also requires integration with the enterprise computing environment. Our work is directed toward this, as well as integrating the web and device app into the geospatial professional workflows that need more advanced geospatial capabilities for their work. While there is some confusion, our experience is that organizations figure it out and there is strong demand for our approach and capabilities in both public and private organizations.
Ball: Is it a validation or a threat that so many are seeing location and mapping as a primary underpinning of their online and device strategy?
Dangermond: The popularity of maps and location in these consumer environments simply validates the principal that mapping and geography information are important and will increasingly be recognized as a fundamental IT platform in society.
Ball: There’s a growing move to access information anywhere at any time. How does ArcGIS Online support this mobile access?
Dangermond: ArcGIS Online has been designed so that our maps run on all devices and our apps can be configured to support the environments of each device. ArcGIS Online supports easily configured apps for the following environments, iOS, (iPad and iPhone), the android devices, as well as Windows (phone, mobile and desktop). Our apps take advantage of the native characteristics of each device.
There is also a complete open API for developers who want to build an enterprise application on any of these devices. For developers, we support SDK’s for JS-HTML 5 and also in native mode taking advantage of the characteristics of each OS and device.
These apps are designed for enterprise use. Esri’s web maps support both cached maps as well as feature data. They also integrate real-time sensor services like traffic, weather or other dynamic enterprise datasets services. This means organizations, such as cities or utilities, can use Esri device apps to access and update their enterprise data in the field. The Windows environments currently support the ability to store and update data in a “sometimes connected” environment. This capability will be available on all devices in the fall.
Ball: Geospatial technology has a legacy of big data manipulation. What is the ongoing role of geospatial in both generating and making sense of big data?
Dangermond: We believe geospatial is going to be a valuable asset to the big data community. Specifically, we see the tools of geo-tagging, geo-reporting, and related functions as providing the ability to parse and manipulate big data.
Ball: Do you consider ArcGIS Online as a complete GIS?
Dangermond: ArcGIS Online is only one part of the ArcGIS system but for some organizations it will be their only geospatial capability. It has some of the fundamental integrative capabilities that have made a full GIS so compelling.
Much has been written about the powerful role of geospatial integration that a GIS provides (i.e., different map layers from different sciences, sources, disciplines) and can be digitally overlain and visualized for interpretation. ArcGIS Online takes this tradition a step further by providing this same kind of capability in the cloud. Users can easily can mash up information from multiple sources, visualize it, and integrate some of the core information.
Providing this capability in an easy-to-use environment has profound implications for organizations that wish to combine their traditional stovepipe datasets and bring together more integrative approaches to their work.
Ball: Our world is going through profound changes that force us to look more closely at our impacts and the interrelated issues of sustainability. What role does GIS and mapping play in making sense of these changes?
Dangermond: Over the past ten years, organizations around the world have invested billions of dollars in collecting geographic information on all sorts of aspects of our planet. While this information has been enormously valuable for specific missions, it has not been extensively leveraged across organizations and by society as a whole.
ArcGIS Online provides the opportunity to share authoritative source data and tools that help people more easily visualize, analyze and understand their world. It's going to change the world. As our organizations become more spatially aware they will see relationships and patterns that will cause people to think more deeply about geography. Whether it’s the environment, land use, social issues, or policy issues, society will become more spatially aware.
My hope is that this platform will support a whole new culture of collaborations. Maps, data models, workflows and apps from multiple organizations will be shared, combined, and used to address the challenging problems our world is facing today. For example, we may see new approaches to land use planning, conservation, natural resource management as well as new understandings in human health and the environment. Organizations will consider various kinds of social and environmental data as part of their thinking about future development. All of this will increasingly be possible as we realize the vision of geography as a platform.
Ball: Does GIS have a unique role to play in making scientists and the public aware of global change?
Dangermond: Yes of course. Geography is our fundamental science for understanding our world. GIS has made geography come alive in a whole world of applications including fundamental aspects of science. Maps, spatial analytics and visualizations have provided key information products for advancing how we see our world and where it’s going. Our world is becoming more complex. GIS will have an increasingly important role to play.