Exploring the Cloud

By George Moon

On Wednesday, August 26, the All Points Blog reported on a poll (Take this week's poll! in the daily newsletter) conducted by Directions Magazine: "Cloud computing is the latest 'buzz word' in information technology, but an understanding of what the phrase means remains elusive." This was based on the results of the survey in which readers picked from a list of choices asking if cloud computing is just another way of describing Web services, SaaS, virtualization or remotely managed services. Readers had two other choices as well: "can't be defined just yet" and "I don't know what cloud computing is."

Another choice should have been offered: "a bit of all the choices," as cloud computing is not any one of the offered selections. We need a bit more background on cloud computing and what it will mean for the GIS industry because it appears that many of the survey participants, presumably all GIS savvy, did not know what cloud computing is. Yet that All Points Blog post also referenced an InformationWeek article which stated many IT managers are budgeting for cloud computing.

According to the article in InformationWeek, 66% of 250 IT managers interviewed by telephone said they are budgeting for cloud computing and that their budgets are likely to grow over the next two years. According to the report:
  • 82% of the respondents said they are "in some stage of trial, implementation or use of public clouds"
  • 83% said the same for use of private clouds
  • 75% said they see platform as a service (PaaS), such as when Salesforce.com offers database services and tools for customizing its applications or building new ones, as a form of cloud computing
  • 60% said they see infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) or Amazon's EC2 as cloud computing
  • 77% of respondents said that the efficiency that stems from using public clouds instead of further building out the IT infrastructure internally is the main driver toward cloud computing

Working in the cloud certainly offers the potential for doing more with less and reducing IT costs for both product producer and user while maximizing computing capacity. Does just a small sampling of high profile cloud providers - Amazon, IBM, Google, Microsoft, Sun / Oracle and Yahoo - and users such as General Electric, L'Oreal, Procter and Gamble suggest that everyone will eventually move to the cloud? In some ways everyone using the Internet has already moved or experienced the cloud. A few cloud-based applications that GIS practitioners may have experienced already include:

  • Web-based email
  • Google or Microsoft mapping
  • virus scanning of Web traffic
  • online storage as offered by Adobe MyFiles, Microsoft SkyDrive and Mac iDisk

What are some of the suppliers of cloud infrastructure or services saying about cloud computing? From their websites:
IBM: Business or consumer services are delivered in a simplified manner, providing unbounded scale, differentiated quality, and with a user focus designed to foster rapid innovation and efficient decision making.

Amazon Web Services (AWS): With AWS you have the flexibility to choose whichever development platform or programming model makes the most sense for the problems you're trying to solve. You pay only for what you use, with no up-front expenses or long-term commitments, making AWS the most cost-effective way to deliver your application to your customers and clients.

Microsoft about Azure: Run critical applications with a higher performance-price ratio by running them on the services platform's data centers on a pay-as-you-go basis.
So what's in a "cloud"? The cloud is Internet-based; may offer Software as a Service, Platform as a Service and Infrastructure as a Service; supports or will support the standards-based extensions to make the Web more dynamic and interactive as offered in Web 2.0; and may use other emerging technologies that rely on the Internet to provide the majority of computing and storage needs of users while enriching the user experience (for example Microsoft Silverlight and Adobe AIR). Cloud computing suppliers also offer dynamic horizontal scaling as demand increases.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently defined cloud computing (document), as well. A short summary of each term follows.

SaaS - services provided to consumers on demand, such as SalesForce.com, which allow vendors to control and limit use, manage licenses and ensure necessary updates are applied. Users benefit by no upfront software purchase and "minimal" hardware necessary to access the services.

Web 2.0 - the emphasis is on network as the platform to run software applications. Available techniques such as AJAX do not replace underlying protocols like HTTP, but provide more dynamic interaction with users. Web 2.0 also supports REST, SOAP APIs and RSS feeds.

Dynamic scaling - providing more capacity on demand. This is often in terms of adding users more than scaling based on larger user requests - the network becomes the supercomputer.

IaaS - delivery of computer infrastructure as a service. Resource virtualization is used to abstract system resources such as storage volumes, name spaces and network resources. It is usually billed like a utility, where users are billed based on use. It provides the primary benefit of quickly procuring services, thus bypassing traditional IT departments and the initial cost of users acquiring similar infrastructure. It is different from hosting services in that services are based on consumption and the technology infrastructure is usually optimized for servicing many customers.

PaaS - the means by which a consumer can build and deploy his application into the cloud. Different vendors offer different programming capabilities and tools.

Before we move to specific GIS benefits in the cloud, we'll focus on a few additional end-user benefits.

Using the cloud minimizes capital expenditure both for software and hardware. Users pay for what they use and small companies can appear large as demand in their offerings increases. Bill Gates has been quoted as saying that the competitor he worried most about was "two kids in a garage." Certainly two kids in a garage can scale to meet demand in the cloud and provide any amount of computing capacity to meet the needs of their clients. Thus they can look like a very large company with minimal investment.

It is also possible to have high reliability due to multiple redundant sites and some cloud providers provide a Service Level Agreement (SLA) that is better than many IT organizations can provide. For example, Amazon EC2 SLA offers an annual uptime percentage of 99.95% or better.

Some say the cloud provides improved security due to centralization of data although there are privacy issues still to be addressed. The ABC News article on "Perils in the Cloud" (September 15, 2009) outlines why privacy laws need to change with the rapid advances in technology. "The payoff for users is massive data storage capacity available at very low - or zero - cost and freedom from having to deal with upgrades and security issues. The downside, however, may be loss of privacy when a government agent or a lawyer with a subpoena shows up at the office of the cloud computing service provider."

IT's existing capabilities can be extended to increase capacity on demand without new infrastructure, training new personnel or licensing new software. IT services are decoupled from hardware and the associated capital cost.

Suppliers of cloud-based GIS do not have to build all the capabilities into their executable programs or host all the data sets. They can access other cloud services and data without needing to directly acquire licenses. Thus they can focus on their expertise. Amazon, for example, provides public data sets in the cloud that an application builder can access. Included among these GIS-relevant data sets are United States demographic data from the 1980, 1990 and 2000 census, summary information about business and industry, 2003-2006 economic household profile data, and a collection of daily weather measurements (temperature, wind speed, humidity, pressure, etc.) from more than 9,000 weather stations around the world.

So, will your company use or supply cloud-based GIS? If it uses Google or Microsoft mapping to look up a location, nearby public facilities such as hotels or restaurants, or to get driving directions, then it is already a "GIS" user in the cloud. Using these offerings in this way and calling it GIS is only slightly more accurate than calling admissions in a hospital "medicine," however. Both are necessary to get into the door but there is much more to GIS, and medicine, once you get through the entrance. Both have specialties that draw upon basic understandings of their respective disciplines, but go much deeper. The cloud offers an opportunity to build a very specialized product and provide it to a large number of users without having to replicate the foundation technologies in a GIS. Let's look in more detail at an interesting public service offering to illustrate an example of building upon existing services.

FireLocator.net is a public service site that provides critical wildfire information for the United States and Australia by integrating data from multiple sources and services from different suppliers. FireLocator uses Microsoft Virtual Earth as the mapping engine, Microsoft Silverlight for the rich Internet controls and Pitney Bowes Business Insight's MapInfo's Envinsa Locator Platform for geocoding and the integration of remote data layers that are both thematic and location-relevant. The remote feeds for the U.S. instance include the following:

NASA's Modis geothermal - the Modis satellite captures imagery that reveals geothermal differences on the earth's surface. This use of geothermal imaging shows hotspots that are likely to be wildfires.

U.S. Department of Agriculture fire imaging - the USDA's Pacific Southwest Research Station provides imagery of wildfires collected by flying over the target fire regions. Wildfires are detected in the imagery by measuring the emitted thermal infrared radiance.

Incident Information System - InciWeb is an interagency information site that provides point information regarding the location of wildfires.

GeoMac Multi Agency Coordination - GeoMac is an interagency website that provides often daily fire perimeter data from various incident intelligence sources (e.g. GPS data, Infrared Imagery).

Local News - feeds from local news coverage of fires

Pictures from Flickr - images that are geolocated that generally are concerned with fire locations

FireLocator is just one example of using the cloud to focus on the task and worry less about the fundamentals. The task was to provide a timely geographic view of fire events and to allow many users to check the situation in their area. An obvious extension would be to allow users to be notified of any new instances near their homes. Other GIS application examples range from creating a map of the location of accounts taken from cloud-based solutions like Salesforce.com to visualizing the target market of sales opportunities in primitive "heat maps." There will, no doubt, be many new and very compelling, complex uses of GIS inside the cloud as cloud use increases and matures. The benefits for GIS are too great for this not to happen.

There's just one application and collection of data sets to maintain, which reduces costs. Providing and maintaining versions to end users can be complex, especially if users do not upgrade when serious changes are made.

You can use other cloud services rather than building everything. The "two guys in a garage" idea can exploit functionality over the Internet, rather than delivering full-blown (bloated) applications that build in everything. Much is already accessible including discrete business services such as conventional credit card processing, Bloomberg data and payroll processing. Basic GIS functionality is now available and soon much more will be offered by all the mainstream GIS providers. This again allows users to focus on their value-add and expertise to address a dynamic audience.

It's still early in the cloud lifecycle, with many isolated clouds of services which IT customers must plug into individually. This will improve rapidly as virtualization and Service Oriented Architecture (SOA)/SaaS solutions become common in companies. This will facilitate loosely coupled services running on an agile, scalable infrastructure and will make many companies nodes in the cloud, easily accessible by large numbers of users. There will be many interesting GIS-empowered cloud solutions. Cloud computing is just too hard to argue against in the long-term as companies try to better use all the available IT capacity.

Published Friday, November 6th, 2009

Written by George Moon

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