MapServer Foundation: Two Weeks On

By Adena Schutzberg

After the flurry of press releases, e-mails, blog posts, IRC chats and actual phone calls about the announcement of the MapServer Foundation two weeks ago, it's time to see where things stand.

First off, I want to share some facts that may have not been clear in the initial announcement.These are things I feel I didn't cover well or completely.

Autodesk will continue to sell the existing MapGuide product and release some service packs.There will however be no more full releases of MapGuide.

Autodesk expects to release a tool to convert MapGuide MWF files to "MapServer Enterprise" feature, data, layer and map resources.The company also hopes to offer migration guides, websites, white papers, support the migration.

Autodesk will be exploring alternatives to the MapServer name in January with the MapServer community.

MapServer 4.6.2 was released after the announcement.What's new? Some bug fixes that enhance Mapscript access to inline features and scale bars.

A poll on the MapServer website revealed that just 22 respondents of 133 thought that the name of the MapServer software should be changed.In a separate question, of 133 respondents, 105 wanted to stick with the name MapServer.

The Foundation is really just a shell; not a complete structure.Dave McIlhagga from DM Solutions explained it this way:
"There is a registered entity, but it is a shell of an organization.It is in place to ensure Autodesk will have somewhere to assign the code to.

"None of the details about the Foundation have been determined - we are in the process of putting together an open transparent way forward that will be presented shortly to the community (this week).

"Everyone is being ultra-sensitive to the community's needs, and this is why we're trying to make sure we do this right.That takes time "" and we're working our way through it as we speak."
There is no plan to merge the code bases.Steve Lime, who created the MapServer Project, and now works at Minnesota Department of Natural Resources states: "There is no intention to merge code bases, not that it is even possible.There are possibilities to share ideas and even pieces of code though.I personally plan to continue to focus exclusively on MapServer for the foreseeable future."

There were many, many posts to blogs and lists (particularly the MapServer list and the new Foundation list) after the announcement.These are just a sampling of the opinions shared.

On the Process
The most talked about and perhaps most articulate statement of displeasure regarding the announcement of the Foundation came from TopoZone founder Ed McNierney.(TopoZone, which offers maps and map services, is built on MapServer.)

He gets to the heart of his concern at the outset."I've been a member of the MapServer 'community' for several years now.The Foundation project is the first time I can ever recall there being a conscious, ongoing, and deliberate attempt to exclude most of the community from a discussion of significance about MapServer." I urge readers who are interested in the sociology of the situation to read the entire post.

Howard Butler, who signed the Open Letter announcing the Foundation tells his tale in his blog.Of particular interest is his discussion of his struggle to sign the non-disclosure agreement and be "in on" the secret or not.
"My curiosity was piqued, but I was torn. Is it right to for most of the major contributors of an open source project to sign an NDA with a single company? Why can't this be done out in the open like everything else? What do they want with us? What do they want with me? I must admit, the idea of a big geospatial software giant being interested in our little web mapping software project was very alluring."
He also shares a short list of the things "we the open letter signers got right and the things we got wrong." It's valuable enough to reprint here.

  • The arguments for a foundation are strong, and there is a strong desire to have a MapServer Foundation.
  • This announcement means that more people than ever are curious about MapServer and MapGuide.
  • Working with Autodesk is the right thing to do.
  • The spelling of my name on the Open Letter was correct.
  • The compressed timeframe between many Open Letter signatories' disclosure and the announcement caused important and big things to be missed.
  • More projects, companies and individuals should have been disclosed about the announcement.More involvement would have prevented some of the larger missteps from happening.
  • Names mean a lot, and the name MapServer Enterprise is perceived as "better" in any way you measure it, even if the software is not fully baked yet.If the names proposed would have been MapServer XXX and MapServer YYY, without setting one over the other in any way, things might have been different.
  • Press releases designed to maximize the exposure of DM Solutions and Autodesk colored the entire announcement.This misplaced the focus that should have been on the foundation and Open Letter.
  • Press releases that were contrary to the Open Letter should have been carefully combed through.It should have been made more clear that this entire thing is proposed, not set in stone.
  • Behind-the-scenes discussions of a self-appointed group was not the correct approach.
On the Code
Jason Birch, shared his experience on a discussion board after playing with "MapServer Enterprise."
"So far, very impressed with the package, especially in terms of how much better it is than MapGuide in terms of thematic mapping, number of colors, transparency, printing and the separation of layer display order from the legend order.

"The HTML viewer is, surprisingly, extremely close to the DFW viewer in functionality, though there is a bit of a speed gap and the mouse wheel does not work for zooms.

"The authoring application (Studio) is excellent.It follows the Dreamweaver paradigm (code/preview/split) and is way, way better than MapGuide Author in terms of use and structure of the data/layers/layouts/maps.Makes it much easier to maintain multi-map access to the same data.

"So far, I've installed the server app on a VMWare Win2k3 machine, and a Win2k physical machine.Some issues with getting PHP5 working properly alongside the existing PHP4 install under IIS, but apart from that it went well.My Win2k machine is generally flaky, and it shows in the demo.The Win2k3 install is very responsive and rock-solid."
Paul Ramsey of Refractions Research (PostGIS) offered his evaluation.
"I pulled the code for MapServer Enterprise and just walked through directories a bit.Some interesting stuff, in particular they built it on top of an open source library stack, so there are dependencies back into proj4, gdal, gd, and our very own geos.Nice to know we're doing our bit to support Anyhow, I guess my point is that it is not proprietary abandonware, it's fresh, and already designed with a somewhat open philosophy."
Ottascope Musing's had some difficulty setting up "MapServer Enterprise" but loves the idea that an Autodesk product will run on Linux.
"In the end, I am really happy that for whatever reason Autodesk has seen the light (or followed the money or whatever) and decided to embrace something that is not exclusively Microsoft.I believe that having a plugin-less GIS that runs on things in addition to IE on Windows will lead to widespread adoption of this system, as this removes some of the major inhibitors to MapGuide (it was worthless in heterogeneous environments and had draconian licensing terms)."
On Autodesk
Sean Gilles offered a wary greeting to Autodesk.
"Speaking only for myself, I offer a sincere, yet cautious, welcome to Autodesk.The thought of a big industry player being interested in the MapServer community is rather seductive, I must admit, and I'm sure that this seduction played a role, for better or worse, in the Foundation decision making process. That's something to look out for at the same time we give Autodesk and its representatives, developers, and users a fair chance to prove themselves."
Mike Jurvid shares his take in his blog.
"This certainly is a smart move by Autodesk, if they want to get back onto the same web mapping field that ESRI is playing on.For years Autodesk has had web mapping software out there, but it has gained zero traction.I can't even recall the name of it.Is it MapGuide? Maybe that's a sign of how popular that product is."
On the Name
Allan Doyle, and others, tackled the product naming issue.I applaud this technical community for instantly tackling branding.
"MapServer, the one that started at the University of Minnesota, has been around a long time.It has an identity.Its name evokes a reputation.People know what it is.When you search for MapServer on Google, it comes up first.(In 2005, what better validation is there of the quality of a name?) If the MapServer people had decided to change the name to MapServer Cheetah, I bet it would have taken a good year or more to change the name of MapServer to MapServer Cheetah.Just to get everyone to recognize the new name.To get it ranked on top on Google again.To establish the brand.And that's without throwing a MapServer Enterprise into the mix."

Some good quotes that help put the event in broader perspective.

Frank Warmerdam quoted at Spatially Adjusted:
"Autodesk was quite worried that if ESRI found out, they would open source ArcIMS ahead of them."
From Evan Yares, President of the Open Design Alliance, in response to an article by Randall Newton at
"Another example of doing a good thing, but stopping short of doing the right thing.
"Autodesk is making the source code for FDO providers available only for competitive or open data formats.
"Autodesk is notably not making FDO providers for its own DWG or DXF available as part of this announcement.If you want those, you'll have to pay for it.
"I'm fairly certain that an Open Design Alliance member will eventually step up and provide a free version, based on the industry-standard DWGdirect library."
Current Status
The meeting originally planned for Phoenix last week to put together the next steps for the Foundation was postponed to further engage the community regarding the agenda and other matters.

For now, things seem calmer.Discussions on the MapServer list are mostly about MapServer.Those on the MapGuide list are on MapGuide. This bodes well for clear thinking in the coming months.

Published Friday, December 16th, 2005

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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