MapServer Community, Autodesk Announce MapServer Foundation

By Adena Schutzberg

Creating a Foundation
The Code Base and Product Vision
DM Solutions Group's Take
Autodesk's Take
Frank Warmerdam's Take
My Take

Creating a Foundation
Open image Members of the open source MapServer community including MapServer Technical Steering Committee Members, the University of Minnesota and DM Solutions Group along with software industry giant Autodesk, signed their names to an open letter announcing the creation of the MapServer Foundation in recent weeks.Today (11/28/05), that letter, and the first set of goals for the new organization were made public.In short, the group will support and promote "open source web mapping," be broadly based and community driven.The lack of detail in this initial announcement underlies the goal of involving the broadest community as early as possible.

Autodesk has stepped up to the plate with funding and code.The successor to its MapGuide software, built bottom up as open source code, will be turned over to the Foundation.It will be called MapServer Enterprise.An early version of that code is available on the MapServer Foundation website now.Other signatories to the letter include DM Solutions of Ottawa, Canada (the largest company developing on MapServer and host of several sites with open source tools and organizer of three open source/MapServer conferences), the University of Minnesota (home of the MapServer Project), and members of the MapServer Technical Steering Committee.

The Foundation is expected to provide a stable infrastructure for the now extended MapServer family's code base and its growing community.In particular, those involved with the group suggest it will provide for more rigorous testing and management oversight than was previously available.Further, the Foundation will provide legal protection for the code and its programmers.In these times of SCO style lawsuits (where organizations allege copyrighted code has made its way into open source offerings) such backing can be vital to the health and growth of the project and the community.Finally, the Foundation will, in time, become the host for the community's conference(s) [2005, 2006].

The Foundation will serve as the home for contributions to the code base and hopefully remove any concerns over the longevity and nature of MapServer.Some suggest that MapServer's history at the University of Minnesota has tagged it as "just" an academic project.(NASA providing initial funding via the ForNet project, a cooperative effort with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.NASA has continued to support MapServer via TerraSIP.)

The Code Base and Product Vision
binoculars The existing MapServer code base, currently managed by Steve Lime at the University of Minnesota, will be renamed MapServer Cheetah (to distinguish it from MapServer Enterprise) and will be part of the Foundation's library.Along with the MapServer Enterprise code, Autodesk will also contribute a dozen of its data access tools, called feature data objects (FDOs).Autodesk will retain rights to a few of these including those used to access Oracle and SQL Server.

The two complementary, but in some ways overlapping open source mapping and GIS offerings, MapServer Cheetah and MapServer Enterprise, will offer programmers and end users a choice of open source offerings.MapServer Enterprise includes GIS analysis and related high end functionality and support for ASP, C++, PHP, SWIG (.NET, Java) for programmers.MapServer Cheetah will continue to offer its map publishing framework with support for PHP, Perl, Python, and Java to access the MapServer C API.MapScript, an internal scripting language, allows for the inclusion of disparate data.

While the open source code will be available for both projects via the Foundation website, it is fully expected commercial companies will create their own products based on them.Autodesk plans to release its own version of MapServer Enterprise, Autodesk MapServer Enterprise.Companies in Japan and elsewhere already repackage and sell their own versions of MapServer.

DM Solution Group's Take
DM Solutions Group Logo Dave McIlhagga, President of DM Solutions Group (DM), uses the term "growing up" to describe what's happening to MapServer and its community.He's first to acknowledge that both have come quite far from the project's start in 1996, but admits both code and community need this sort of organization to reach the next level.

While DM had spent quite a bit of its resources managing, enhancing and offering code, the Foundation, McIlhagga feels, will help it and other companies to focus more on services and less on the core code issues, opening new opportunities and further growing the business.DM, he points out, was in growth mode before this announcement, having recently hired a Chief Operating Officer.

This Foundation, McIlhagga observes, is quite different from other open source foundations that came before.LINUX and APACHE were grass roots efforts that built up code bases and formed communities and foundations.Sun and IBM are taking existing commercial code such as ECLIPSE and Open Office and turning them open source.The MapServer Foundation may be the first, he suggests, to have a bit of both traditions.MapServer has a grass roots history, while Autodesk's contribution of MapServer Enterprise points to a commercial one.

McIlhagga wants to be clear that there is much to discuss and explain with the advent of the Foundation.His greatest fear is that the MapServer community will feel that its product will be replaced by MapServer Enterprise."MapServer Enterprise is not a replacement for MapServer.MapServer will continue on as it has." He's quick to remind those that may not be aware that no entity can kill an open source project, only those who choose to work on it, or with it, can do so.

Autodesk's Take
Autodesk Logo Autodesk has been working on the successor to MapGuide, called MapServer Enterprise and code-named Tux, for some time.The Infrastructure Solutions Division (ISD) decided, even before discussions of a MapServer Foundation, that it would be built on open source technology.(Tux is the name of the Linux mascot, a penguin.) MapServer Enterprise was built from the ground up on an open source development platform called ACE, ADAPTIVE Communication Environment.

Why open source? A few factors influenced the decision, explained Gary Lang, Autodesk ISD's Vice President of Engineering.

"¢ End users and developers were requesting such things as WMS, Web Map Service (an OpenGIS specification) support and that Autodesk was taking far too long to turn these around."With this kind of product," Lang explained, "it's possible to implement and test quickly.There's no need for long waits for functionality." By "this kind of product" he refers to server based products in contrast to desktop ones such as AutoCAD.It's relatively simple to create test suites for servers since there are limited possible requests.For desktop software, it's far more complex.The speed at which open source communities can add these types of changes was appealing, too.

"¢ Third party developers were requesting different ways to build MapGuide apps.In current and previous MapGuide releases, they used JavaScript to build applications on the client side.That meant literally sending code to all the users of the application each time an update was made.These developers were anxious to do their work on the server side, which offered a perhaps simpler way.Autodesk selected open source tools like PHP and SWIG (which enables .NET and Java development) were selected as a way to provide server side programming.

"¢ Autodesk has in recent years aimed to move away from products to applications and services, "moving upstream" as Lang puts it.He points as evidence to the growth of Autodesk Professional Services and ISD's recent acquisition of Topobase.Moving toward open source would free up resources to focus more on applications and less on core code.

"¢ There was full support from Autodesk CEO Carol Bartz.Lang pointed out she sat on the board of VA Linux for some time, and understands how open source works.

Building on open source tools is one thing, but funding and contributing that code to a new foundation is another.Lang has only positive things to say about his interactions with the MapServer community over the past few months."They are not GIS geeks - but people trying to solve a problem.They ground us," he says, noting that only two Autodeskers are involved actively in the Foundation.He's genuinely proud to have his company involved with this group for a few reasons."More alternatives for GIS are better than fewer," he points out."They [the MapServer community members] have done good work that should be continued and the number of [MapServer] users has increased exponentially over the past two years!"

And, while he hopes to grow MapServer Enterprise users, the real goal is "banding together as geospatial professionals." In that context he notes that one of Autodesk's competitors outspends it 10-1 in marketing of Web mapping products.Joining forces with the open source community is one way to offer a clear alternative.

Lang is anxious to see expanding adoption of Autodesk's version of MapServer Enterprise.Increased adoption will mean more FDOs, effective clean up of the code, and new functionality.Those enhancements will come both from Autodesk and members of the MapServer community.

The company will package and support MapServer Enterprise in its upcoming product, Autodesk MapServer Enterprise 2007, just as Red Hat packages and support its distribution of Linux or IBM packages its version of the Apache server.What will Autodesk MapServer Enterprise 2007 look like? It will have a server portion MapServer Enterprise and a new authoring package called MapServer Enterprise Studio.Studio, a "rich client" will be build on the Autodesk Map DLL, so it can read DWG, among other things, and allow the development of map services (deciding what data to publish, how to render it, etc.) as well as data preparation and editing.

Autodesk's commercial version of MapServer Enterprise's native data format will be a new version of SDF built on SQL Lite, an open source database.Other accessible data sources will include (via SDO) ArcSDE, Web Feature Service (WFS), Web Map Service (WMS), Shape files, MySQL, Oracle.FDOs for Oracle and SQL Server will be available only in Autodesk's product, but not in the open source version.Said another way, those two FDOs will not be turned over to the Foundation; they will remain the intellectual property of Autodesk.However, it is entirely possible another developer will build new FDO providers and chose to add them to the MapServer Enterprise code base for all to use.

Autodesk MapServer Enterprise 2007 will support two vector publishing formats: Autodesk DWF (Design Web Format) and one called eMap, which encodes georeferencing information and can carry attribute information.Clients using those will need to download and install a plug-in their browser, much like previous MapGuide implementations.The server will also support the sending of raster data to a browser, with no plug-in required.That implementation will use tiles and be based on AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML)."It'll act like Google Maps," says Lang.

Autodesk expects to see a mature code tree for MapServer Enterprise on the MapServer Foundation website by February.That, Lang suggests, will mean an Autodesk release in the second or third quarter of 2006.

Frank Warmerdam's Take
Powered by MapServer Frank Warmerdam is one of the key players in the open source geospatial space.He's keeper of GDAL (raster libraries) and OGR (vector libraries), two open source libraries used in many open source and commercial software packages.He's a MapServer programmer and a voice of reason in the community.He also was awarded the first Sol Katz award by the open source geospatial community.In the context of this discussion, it's important to know that he's a member of the MapServer Technical Steering Committee and a signatory on the Foundation letter.

As a long time member of the community, Warmerdam is quick to point out the credibility that a company like Autodesk brings to the table.Still, he balances that with skepticism around the company's commitment to MapServer Cheetah, pointing out that the company is at least for now, most interested in the MapServer Enterprise, the code it's written and contributed.

Warmerdam noted his initial intimidation after looking at MapServer Enterprise.It's written, he explains, "by a large group of programmers, with experience and a good deal of oversight.It's heavyweight." That said, after some exploration and fiddling, he was pleased to find he could program FDO providers and transfer his skills.He has a contract to extend FDO and is at work creating FDO providers for GDAL and OGR.Still, he's concerned more casual MapServer Cheetah users may find MapServer Enterprise overwhelming.

Where is the line between MapServer Cheetah and MapServer Enterprise? For Warmerdam, it's about how one chooses to interact with the code.Those who want to "poke around" may well be happier with MapServer Cheetah.Those who want to get up and running fast and use a slick interface may want Autodesk's MapServer Enterprise 2007.Warmerdam is adamant that choice is a good thing.He admits that some part of him wants to "bury his head in the sand and ignore MapServer Enterprise" but realizes that "that's not the best thing for the user." And, he's thinking of the user community, too as he plans to ask the GDAL and OGR communities if they would like to see those libraries, for which he's been a self described "dictator," put under Foundation oversight.

He illustrates another difference between the two offerings in the communities behind them.He observes the difference between how a commercial company and an open source community "markets and sells" software.A commercial company determines a vision, then sells that vision, he explains.The open source community puts out lots of choices and sees "what flies." MapServer has thus been vetted by the community.MapServer Enterprise does not yet have that pedigree.

I posited that aligning the MapServer community with some parts of an Autodesk community might create a force to compete with market leader ESRI.Warmerdam suggests that Autdoesk may see it that way, but he does not see this as a "wedge" to drive ESRI users to open source."ESRI's strength is in the desktop.Its success in online mapping comes from its strength in the desktop.It's 'just easier' for long time users to stay within the family." An open source solution, even one backed by Autodesk is not likely to change that loyalty, he predicts.

Asked for his take on the challenge Autodesk may face educating its existing community about open source, Warmerdam describes it as small."Autodesk is selling what it has always sold: the value of the Autodesk relationship.By purchasing an Autodesk branded version of MapServer Enterprise, the vast majority of open source dilemmas are solved." Those dilemmas include service and support, something in which Autodesk has quite a bit of experience.

It's clear though that Warmerdam and other members of the community have some concerns about sharing a foundation with the likes of Autodesk.For one, offering "two versions" of MapServer may split what until now has been a tightly knit worldwide community.Warmerdam hopes to help keep the two groups linked by working toward shared code such as support for GDAL and OGR and other functions and libraries so that developers and users can move easily between what are now two completely unrelated code bases.There are also concerns that Autodesk, and not the user community of MapServer Enterprise, will drive development in that open source project.Warmerdam hopes leaders in the current MapGuide community will take up roles in the Foundation to combat that possibility.Finally, Warmerdam is sensitive to the fact that even the creation of the Foundation has split the MapServer community."Some were in the know and others were not as the process moved ahead.Some may feel we've sold out to Autodesk." In time, he hopes, the community will rally around the Foundation for the good of the user base.

The creation of the Foundation did not come out of nowhere.There have been signs for some time that MapServer was ready for a "next step." I've heard many in the open source community make a statement on the order of, "to get any further, we need to get our act together." I got that sense, and the sense of excitement at what was possible, at the second open source GIS and MapServer conference in Ottawa in 2004.There was even more buzz at the 2005 event, with a bit of wonder and head scratching about the attendance of an ESRI staffer and several very high level Autodesk and Intergraph staffers.

The attendance of Gary Lang and Geoff Zeiss of Autodesk and Ignacio Guerrero of Intergraph made many at this year's event nervous.To be fair, these are all very well respected, knowledgeable and professional individuals who were honest and open about why they were there."We can't ignore open source anymore; we need to understand it," one of them told me.I did see other odd pairings of commercial GIS vendors with open source people at Directions Media's Location Intelligence conference, as well.

The formation of the MapServer Technical Steering Committee in July was another indication that some sort of more formal structure was developing.Later this year, blogs (including All Points Blog) pointed to a proposal and discussion on a MapServer Foundation on Tyler Mitchell's "next generation" MapServer site.(The documents in question are no longer online.) Sean Gilles, a member of the Technical Steering Committee, raised the issue of "secrecy" in his post at Zcologia.

My Take
I agree with one of the members of the MapServer community who suggested that this pairing and the formation of the Foundation are perhaps the most important events in the geospatial arena in 20 years.Why? This is not a merger or acquisition.This is not even a business relationship in the traditional sense.It's the realization at very high levels in the commercial geospatial community that the open source model and process are valid and valuable for both software providers, third party developers, and software users.Moreover, a company like Autodesk must believe that choosing the open source approach will generate substantial revenue and open new doors.

I offer these short lists of pros and cons regarding the creation of the Foundation along with a "wish list" for its future.


MapGuide/MapServer Enterprise gets a huge re-launch.MapGuide has been a terrific product with little visibility.This "whole new MapGuide story" can only bring it out into the light in many new ways.

MapServer/Cheetah gets a boost.MapServer has been growing in name recognition and use, but the creation of the Foundation, backing by a huge industry player, can only enhance that growth.

Open Source get a boost.While fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) about open source continues in IT circles, I hate to admit how much is still running amuck in geospatial circles.Hopefully, the Foundation's efforts will continue to clear the air.

More platforms.Moving to open source is pushing Autodesk from its "Windows only" retreat.

A home for other open source projects.It's too early to say for sure, but the Foundation may help house the growing number of open source geospatial projects.


Challenges to community abound.The nature of the MapServer community has thrown on its head.Skepticism and fear are to be expected.They are frankly healthy during times of change, though they can ultimately pull groups apart.

Integrating products and people.While this is not a merger of products, finding common ground between MapServer Cheetah and MapServer Enterprise will be a task that may make or break the Foundation.Holding it together is key if other open source GIS projects are to come under its umbrella down the road.

Head to head competition.To date open source consultants only competed (and often cooperated!) with one another.In time, open source programmers tackling open source MapServer Enterprise may well face off against those with experience with Autodesk MapServer Enterprise.(That might be considered a pro by some.)


I'd like to see the Foundation, in time, become the home to open source GIS technologies that are ready for this next step.Which ones? GRASS? PostGIS? QGIS?

I'd like to see other commercial companies consider signing on the foundation.Would it make sense for Intergraph to explore using the FDO technology in GeoMedia? Might that company turn some of its projects into open source ones?

I'd like to see the foundation take a firm stand on standards, perhaps even Open Geospatial Consortium standards.MapServer has many OGC specifications implemented (WMS 1.1, WMS 1.0, WMC 1.0, WFS 1.0, SLD 1.0, GML 2.0, Filter 1.0, WMS 1.1.1), but the lack of a "body" to the product certified compliant has been lacking.

I'd like to see the geospatial community open its doors to the Foundation.I'd like to see the Foundation showing off what it does and how it does it at trade shows and on GIS Day.I'd like to see it invited to professional meetings to get users up to speed.

But these are dreams for some time in the future.Today, this week, we are simply adjusting to a space/time warp in the continuum of our geospatial marketplace.Processes, products and relationships are all changing in ways with which none of us have experience.

Published Tuesday, November 29th, 2005

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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