How Will GIS Companies Weather the Gathering Cloud Computing Storm?

By Philip O’Doherty

The debate about cloud computing and software as a service (SaaS) is well and truly over. SaaS has just too many advantages to offer customers and end-users for anyone to credibly argue against it. The pay-as-you-go service model provides ease-of-use, scalability, reduced maintenance and support effort, and lower total cost of ownership, which means that more and more customers expect SaaS or cloud options when they evaluate new business software. But what does this mean in the world of GIS where change and technical advances have tended to be a bit slower than in many other business software categories? We know the potential that GIS and online mapping and analysis can offer to solve complex business problems, but can GIS software and the use of spatial data evolve to meet the needs of a world that consumes its software as a service in the cloud or do we need to rip it all up and start again?

Cloud computing is a style of computing in which dynamically scalable, shared and often virtualized resources including hardware, software and information are provided as a service over the Internet. Software as a service is a significant subset of the cloud paradigm. Also known as software on demand, SaaS is where vendors license applications, such as GIS and location intelligence, for use over the Internet - or in the cloud - on a pay-as-you-go or subscription model. For customers, this means no more large, upfront implementation investments and significant ongoing reductions in their in-house IT support and maintenance burden.

SaaS is a complete game changer. It's not only changing the way software is bought and deployed, but also the very notion of software itself. Software suppliers attempting to catch up with the new SaaS-hungry era have to be able to adapt to the fact that SaaS is not about selling and supporting software; it's about providing a service. It's the fact that SaaS is a "service" that's turning everything on its head, and fundamentally differentiates it as a way of delivering functionality such as GIS. Businesses are adjusting to the concept with staggering speed and are already starting to think in terms of paying for services to achieve their business goals, rather than buying software.

So where stands GIS and the mapping software companies as regards the cloud and SaaS? Certainly a lot of organizations are paying lip service to the concept and a few vendors have introduced SaaS offerings of one sort or another. But for existing GIS software vendors to successfully provide GIS as a service they first need to make the obvious significant philosophical leap: They need to stop thinking like software companies and start thinking and acting like service providers. There is little evidence in the announcements so far that the larger GIS software incumbents have made the mind-shift. This mirrors the pattern in other software categories. Just ask Marc Benioff, founder of probably the best-known and most successful cloud computing company, He claims his big rivals in the customer relationship management space, Oracle and SAP, don't have what it takes to make a go of it in the new cloudier climate. He could be wrong, but history would support his point of view. Innovation and major paradigm shifts - such as what is required to move from providing traditional on-premise solutions to offering software purely as a service - are not easy for large incumbent technology vendors.

Ironically, inability to innovate is one of the major problems that plague large established software companies. In fact the ability to bring new products and solutions to market tends to be inversely proportional to size, previous success and profitability. This problem is obvious in the GIS sector, dominated as it is by a few large incumbents, which over the years has been slow to move from its traditional models and mores. On top of the software industry infrastructural problems, which conspire to stymie technical advances, SaaS probably represents a more significant technical and business revolution than we have experienced before; even more so than the change from monolithic mainframe applications to client/server in the 1980s and 1990s.

Ultimately it is probably going to take newer, smaller and hungrier vendors to provide GIS customers with credible SaaS and cloud offerings. Even if some of the more established vendors are in a position to overcome the systemic flaws in the GIS software development industry, it's not going to be easy to "SaaSify" something if it wasn't built with the Web in mind in the first place. And it's not going to be enough to offer piecemeal solutions. If GIS is to avoid being left behind in the basement of the business application hierarchy we need to put spatial data in the cloud and offer our customers fully functioned Web GIS and location intelligence applications in the cloud sooner rather than later.

Just in case there are still some nonbelievers out there, whatever way you define it or carve it up, cloud computing is a growing phenomenon and its growth is accelerating every year as businesses gain confidence in the model. I've been following the market since SaaS first emerged on the information technology fringe back in the early 2000s and it's interesting to see how it has shifted to the mainstream in recent years.

The reasons for this change are manifold, but the primary attraction of the service model in my view is the fact that it fundamentally shifts the burden of IT management and maintenance from the customer to the vendor. Easy to configure and maintain, SaaS requires limited or no operational support from a company's IT organization. It accelerates time-to-results and offers an affordable, predictable and scalable subscription-based pricing model. That is a massive change of emphasis that enables organizations to focus on their core business without having to invest heavily in IT infrastructure and personnel, and all the headaches that go along with those.

In the early days of SaaS and cloud computing these benefits were seen as a way for small and mid-sized organizations, with tighter IT budgets and fewer technical resources, to gain access to enterprise applications that were previously the preserve of large organizations with deep pockets - GIS immediately comes to mind. But bigger companies and government organizations are also investing in cloud-based solutions, and GIS customers are already starting to ask the question: How can they justify the in-house cost and management overhead of a client/server application for something that is still not, in reality, a core business application?

Do we transform GIS into a more essential business application or will it be banished to the cloud? I believe one does not preclude the other - in fact the "SaaSification" of GIS could be just what the doctor ordered. This new deployment model could be what finally delivers GIS capabilities to a much wider corporate audience and user base. Let's face it, GIS is not the most recognizable three-letter acronym in the information technology lexicon. If you were to mention CRM in passing in a dinner conversation these days, nine out of 10 people would probably have some idea as to what you were talking about - try to drop GIS into the conversation, however, and the statistics would go the other way.

Those of us who have worked with GIS and mapping software for decades know the power and potential of geospatial technology, but we also recognize that it has failed to set the business world alight on a global scale. The widespread availability of basic online mapping functionally such as Google Maps, Google Earth and Microsoft Bing Maps are enabling organizations of all sizes, and even individuals, to benefit from GIS-like functionality via the Internet. Their entry into the spatial market has created consumer interest in mapping solutions, and importantly also, the acceptance of the geospatial metaphor as an intuitive way to access, analyze and visualize business data. I believe that fully functioned GIS service in the cloud could take that interest one step further and could finally lead to widespread use of GIS technology in all types of businesses.

Published Friday, April 30th, 2010

Written by Philip O’Doherty

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