Harness the Power of Open Source GIS with a Hybrid Architecture

Anthony Calamito, Chief Evangelist at open source GIS company, Boundless, explores how companies can harness the power of their open source GIS systems by building hybrid architectures that include their existing software.

Open source adoption is taking place at an unprecedented rate. Enterprises leveraging cloud, virtualization, and/or mobile computing are adopting open source values to drive competitive advantage and innovation. This is especially pertinent in the GIS community, where open source provides companies with unmatched flexibility, interoperability, scalability and much more.

Out with the Old, in with the New? Not necessarily.  

Open source came about in part due to the challenges associated with closed source environments. Closed environments often create roadblocks like single vendor lock-in, increased costs for scaling architecture up or out, and a lack of interoperability with existing software and hardware. Too often, modern enterprises continue to deal with these issues in an attempt to avoid ripping and replacing their legacy systems. These proprietary environments often represent decades of significant investment that CIOs can be understandably hesitant to alter.

The good thing about open source in this respect is that it’s flexible enough to work alongside and improve the functions of pre-existing architectures. Open source allows changes to occur gradually in phases so that users are not affected. Rather than ripping and replacing expensive proprietary software to make room for open source software, organizations can migrate their enterprise over time and as operational tempo allows. The resulting architectures are called hybrid architectures, consisting of both proprietary and open source software. Going the hybrid architecture route helps organizations reduce risk and add tremendous value.

Open Source for GIS: Past and Present

Open source for GIS is sometimes called Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial (FOSS4G), and its availability has grown significantly over the last 10 years. The US Dept. of the Interior launched the Map Overlay and Statistical System (MOSS) in 1978, and the US Army Corps of Engineers released GRASS in 1982. Used to support both raster and vector data, these are known as some of the earliest open source GIS technologies. Later projects such as GeoTools, GDAL/OGR, PostGIS, GeoServer, and QGIS were created to serve as cross-platform solutions that are streamlined for minimal install footprints and an improved user experience. There is a robust variety of open source solutions in the geospatial community, each with a growing number of users and contributors behind it.

Additionally, several open source software foundations have come about to facilitate the growth of small projects into mature technologies. They provide developer resources, cover the costs of IP and legal review, ensure all code falls within the boundaries of licenses, and add a certain level of credibility to a given project. Just as consumers  feel more comfortable purchasing items online through a trusted source like Amazon, organizations feel comfortable integrating software through a foundation like Apache, OSGeo or LocationTech.

The Power of Open Source for GIS

Open source as part of a hybrid architecture provides a plethora of benefits for GIS organizations. Perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to integrate open source is the fact that most organizations aren’t getting optimal use from their proprietary software. This phenomenon is known as the 80/20 rule; 80 percent of users only use about 20 percent of a software’s total functionality. In the context of GIS, this represents geo-enabled users who are plotting dots on a map, exporting simple overlays as JPEGs, digitizing vector content from imagery, and conducting simple analysis such as point-in-polygon filtering. Integrating open source into an existing architecture helps to assure that enterprises get the most from their proprietary system.

Another benefit of leveraging open source is the resilience and continuity it builds within an organization. Improved collaboration means more people are looking at source code and mitigating potential bugs before they happen. Developing projects in the open promotes transparency and ensures that any given architecture is not reliant on a single company, technology or developer to keep the operational project alive.

Many proprietary software environments contain additional (sometimes hidden) costs, as demonstrated in the graphic below. While individually these costs may be nominal, they can add up quickly and ultimately increase the total cost of ownership of a solely proprietary solution. Leveraging open source as part of a hybrid architecture can help to lower the total cost of ownership.

Migrating to a Hybrid Architecture

After understanding the many benefits of open source, the next step is to put its power to use. Successful hybrid migrations should set proper expectations regarding timeline and cost, while clearly articulating achievable milestones from the beginning. Phased approaches that include the following distinct steps: data consolidation, service enablement, and client/app development, are recommended.

Phase 1: Data Consolidation

Successful hybrid GIS architectures need a solid foundation, which requires a focus on the data and data storage first. This should consist of de-duplicating and conflating data sources as necessary, with the end goal being a centralized, authoritative set of data from which services can be published.

Phase 2: Service Enablement

Phase two is about service-enabling data into map and analytical services. This allows organizations to maintain integrity and fidelity of their source data. Discussions around governance and policy are also necessary in this phase in order to determine an agreed upon set of policies that govern who can do what to the data and services within holdings.

Phase 3: Client/Application Development

Finally, one must consider how external users will access, connect and use the data and services. Beyond opening up and sharing service endpoints to users outside of the organization, this phase usually includes desktop, web and mobile application development, as it is popular way to make use of data and services.

The Bottom Line

Hybrid GIS architectures consisting of both proprietary and commercially supported open source software empower organizations by reducing risk and adding value to their projects through better interoperability, scalability, availability and flexibility. By following the steps above, migrating to a hybrid architecture can be a simple and effective way to improve one’s proprietary system and drive innovation within an organization.

About the Author

Anthony Calamito serves as the Chief Evangelist for Boundless where he is responsible for product strategy and outreach, educational initiatives and training programs.  Anthony has also served as the company’s federal CTO, managing efforts around the company’s relationship with the US Federal Government. 

In addition, Anthony is also a Steering Committee member at LocationTech, helping to identify, develop and evaluate advanced location aware technologies that are both commercially-friendly and open source.  Anthony also promotes geography education as both a Fellow of the American Geographical Society, and as an adjunct instructor at George Mason University.  

Prior to joining Boundless, Anthony worked as a Senior Engineer implementing and maintaining a hybrid enterprise GIS of both proprietary and open source software.  Anthony also spent 6 years as a Lead Solutions Engineer with Esri performing pre-sales support, product presentations and demonstrations, holistic testing, and post-sales technical support. He has been featured on stage as a presenter for several Esri User Conference plenary sessions.

Anthony received his Bachelors of Science in geography from The Pennsylvania State University in 2004.



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