Is a Geographic Appliance in Your Future?

By Adena Schutzberg

toasterIn recent weeks the term "appliance," as it relates to geospatial solutions, has popped up quite a bit. Now is a good time to look at the phenomenon. Before looking at specific geographic appliances, let's start with the term "appliance" as applied to information technology in general. If your mind wanders to a classic toaster, you are not far off. What's the great thing about a toaster? You plug it in and it makes toast. It performs a specific task, and you have just a few options to configure. Computer appliances, per Wikipedia, are "software devices that provide a narrow range of functions that are generally run on a hardware platform of their own."

My introduction to the term was in reference to the Google Search Appliance. Think of it as a "box of Google search" that you can plug in to your enterprise. If you've not seen the box, click the link above; it includes a screenshot of a slick yellow box that resembles a desktop computer's CPU. Like a toaster, you can order one online (in the U.S.). Unlike a $10 or $15 toaster, this appliance is an investment, one starting at $30,000. There's a more basic version, the Google Mini, which starts at about $2,000. It's aimed at small- and medium-sized organizations and supports only 300,000 documents (comparison of full-sized and Mini). The earliest computer appliances were routers (which we mostly think of as hardware, aka appliances, but were at one time software) and firewalls (which for home use are still mostly software, but for enterprises are typically appliances).

Now back to geospatial appliances. The Wikipedia article uses the portable navigation device, or PND, as an example of a computer appliance. Based on the definition, I agree it falls into the category, though I've never heard PNDs referred to that way. My understanding of a geospatial appliance mimics the Google appliances: they are "boxes" you plug into your enterprise. Google itself offers several software solutions for in-house use based on its Google Earth technology. These are not, so far as I can tell, true appliances as the user supplies the hardware. Still, they can be considered "competitors" to some of the appliances on the market.

GEOINT: A Place for Appliance Announcements
Northrop Grumman, the defense contractor, offers a geospatial appliance, the CJMTK Geospatial Appliance. Announced at GEOINT this year, it is aimed at defense and intelligence users. It comes in two versions: a field version that's ruggedized and can support 50 users, and a configurable server that can support up to 300. Per the press release: "The product includes content management tools, maintenance, data and software update services, and a portfolio of geospatial data over global, strategic, operational and tactical base maps." Inside the box there's some ESRI technology: ArcGIS Server and desktop products, custom applications and ESRI commercial data.

FortiusOne demonstrated the GeoCommons Appliance alongside partner Lockheed Martin at GEOINT. It will be available soon, but is essentially an appliance version of the company's GeoCommons website. Representatives from FortiusOne explained that the appliance makes sense for both the vendor and the customer. The vendor need not worry about installation or configuration issues. Further, since the GeoCommons application "pushes the envelope" it's best that it has its own, known hardware. The other benefit to the vendor: there are no issues of hardware platform support; one platform is supported. In these days of Web 2.0-type apps moving into the enterprise, it's simple for an appliance like that of FortiusOne to plug into any enterprise that supports a browser. From the customer side, the appliance means simplicity. Plug it into the enterprise, do a small amount of configuring and its up and running. There's no selection of hardware or installation of many CDs or DVDs. The FortiusOne appliance uses the Sun Fire X4500 server for hardware.

GEOINT was also the place and time for Microsoft to show its Vexcel division's Virtual Earth Appliance. There was no official announcement, but a Microsoft blogger described a demo and noted that the appliance was "long awaited by Public Sector customers, especially in the Intelligence sector." The writer was impressed with the size of the appliance (toaster sized) and its scalability (laptop with portable storage to a stackable server configuration). Pricing and details are not yet available and I found no mention of the device on the Vexcel website.

Open Source Appliances
MapSnack is an open source implementation of a virtual appliance. Virtualization is a technique for making a set of networked hardware look and act like a different, often simpler, set of hardware. (That's my definition; for a more official one visit Wikipedia.) The idea of a virtual appliance, as I understand it, is that a software package can be used to set up an appliance quickly and simply on whatever hardware is available. The new appliance is created without an installation (or with a minimal one) and is stand-alone, and does not interact with any other apps running on the hardware. It runs as a virtual machine. MapSnack uses an open source stack (Apache-2.2.2, PHP-5.1.4 , GDAL-1.3.1, PROJ-4.4.9, GRASS-6.0.2, MapServer-4.8.3, MapLab-2.2.1, ka-map-0.2.0, p.mapper-1.9.5 beta) to do two key things:
  • serve georeferenced map layers (vector or raster based) to the browser
  • serve and consume OGC WMS or WFS services
MapSnack has an open source license and no fee, but it does not include a base dataset. That, of course, can be solved with reasonable ease, as more and more public domain data becomes available. Stanislav Sumbera's MapSnack slides from a FOSS4G presentation in 2006 are online. Another presentation (pdf) from FOSS4G 2006, from Allan Doyle, used a Mac Mini to build an open source appliance aimed at Civil Society (defined here).

Data Centric Appliances
Tele Atlas and partner SAIC offer perhaps the best acronym for a geospatial appliance: GEAR, the Geospatial Enterprise Architecture Rack (pdf). The appliance, loaded with data, is for government customers "who must quickly integrate or deploy geospatial services and data in a new or existing enterprise." Interestingly, "GEAR is neither hardware nor software dependent, and fully supports OGC clients utilizing a customizable ESRI product base." The solution addresses three key needs: continuity of operations, data dissemination and sharing, and utilization in a deployed environment. It comes in an enterprise server (stays put and holds 4 TB) and an appliance server (can be taken to another deployment and holds 1-2 TB).

ESRI recently announced its appliance, the ArcGIS Data Appliance, which provides data in a form supported by ArcGIS Server (required). The data appliance delivers "ready to go" data for an enterprise that can be used with in-house apps built using ArcGIS Server. Data comes in 2D and 3D, and different packages are available for the world and U.S. Pricing (think of the Google pricing noted at the beginning of this article) is available in this pdf, along with detailed descriptions of the data and an order form. Hardware is from Inline Corporation. There's some discussion about the appliance, and a bit of a wish list, at James Fee's Spatially Adjusted Blog.

MapWerks, out of Australia, offers up appliances, the MapWerks Appliance Servers, loaded with data from that country and the ability to serve up OGC Web services. The servers offer different levels of performance and run on Sun hardware. Rendering, customization and GPS positioning are standard; routing, geocoding and reverse geocoding are not included in the base version but are available on higher-end offerings or as add-ons.

Remote Sensing Appliance
In September of this year PCI Geomatics received funding from Canada GeoConnections to update its Web Coverage Service to support the latest OGC standard and to "develop an 'Image Correction Appliance' to orthorectify satellite imagery and publish the images via the WCS specification." The appliance, reports the press release on the award, will "be pre-configured with web coverage servers and services to allow for the ability to access over 100+ image file formats."

Data Management Appliances
MetaCarta, which like Google offers data management/data organization toolkits, offers all of its products as appliances. Like FortiusOne, it sees good reasons to go that way:
  • Server model - A server model implies that multiple applications can share a single platform. All of MetaCarta solutions require significant computing resources and MetaCarta has chosen an appliance model to ensure optimized performance.
  • Security - MetaCarta's initial focus was the Federal government market. The appliance model has been accredited for secure government environments.
WeoGeo, a service for finding and selling map data, is powered by the WeoGeo Server. That same server is available as an appliance. It can be used exclusively in-house to find and manage data or it can be "linked" to WeoGeo online to monetize an organization's datastores.

Are Geospatial Appliances in Your Future?
I'm sure this short list leaves off some current and future appliance products, but its length and breadth suggests to me that the number of geospatial appliances is going to multiply. The concept of "plug and play" offers great potential, especially in the geospatial world where complexity (of applications, data purchase, data licensing, data management, data loading) is around every corner. Further, the idea that a "small box" can be transported and supported during a military operation or a natural disaster is most appealing.

The challenge, I think, is to create products that settle nicely into the different potential user bases. Clearly it's possible to break out products by data quality/detail, performance, or number of users. Combining those options in off-the-shelf or custom solutions that are compelling and affordable will be the key.

Published Thursday, November 29th, 2007

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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