Spatial ASP - Internet GIS Is Here - Part 2

By Anthony J. Quartararo III

INDUSTRY EXAMPLES

One spatial ASP example for telecommunications is the Intelligence EngineTM by CopperKey.This application has found utility in both network operations and property & asset management.The network operations solution allows a telecommunication company to deploy service quality level monitoring tools across various geographic regions in an integrated, comprehensive manner.Likewise, the property & asset management application allows a telecommunications company to manage the life-cycle of property assets for wireless locations.The spatial ASP tools provide access for disparate offices and users to leverage GIS technologies over the internet to drive real solutions to traditional business problems.

Another spatial ASP solution for telecommunications is the WIISE platform (Wireless and Internet Infrastructure Software Environment) from Xmarc Company.This solution allows telecommunications companies to leverage the Xmarc365 hosted solutions provided by the company.This comprehensive approach to delivering the software, hardware and expertise to commercial clients is one of the key points in the ASP model.The integration and data-on-demand services coupled with the flexibility and scalability of the solution provide clients with a solid alternative for spatial technology.

Yet another, more robust example of an AM/FM/GIS implemented under a spatial ASP architecture in the telecom industry is for Qwest Communications (formerly US West Communications).This example however is an "inverted ASP" - that is, Qwest maintains the data center operations, spatial database and provides access to its vendors through thin-client computing technology.This access is for OSP maintenance and work-order processing as well as other GIS services.

While these are just a few examples of the many applications of spatial ASP technology in the market today, there continues to be growth in the quantity, quality and variety of solutions offered.

INTERNAL OR EXTERNAL ASP?

There are many issues to consider when evaluating an ASP strategy.The primary issues are discussed below in more detail.It is also relevant to consider these issues in the context of deciding whether to implement an internal ASP architecture or contract with an external vendor to deliver ASP solutions.
Service Level Agreement
The Service Level Agreement (SLA) is the basic contract between the consumer (organization or individual) and the spatial ASP.This contract provides all of the typical contract issues as well as several that are unique to the ASP model.It is also necessary to understand that, unless the ASP operates their own hosting center, they will have corresponding SLAs with their respecting data center hosting partners and communications providers.The terms and conditions of those SLAs will be passed on to the end-consumer.

There are several unique features that are recommended in any SLA between the consumer and the spatial ASP.First, and perhaps most imperative, is the stated and guaranteed network availability metric.This is frequently referred to as "up-time" and can range from 98% to 99.999% total time.While it is arguable that "Five 9's" (99.999% up-time) may theoretically be possible, practicality calls for a recognition that this figure is very narrowly defined in most SLAs.It is important to recognize that this guarantee only refers to the network up-time, not the particular application solution that is being accessed.The reasoning behind this important detail is that the spatial ASP has no control over the reliability of a third-party application that they are hosting and delivering as part of their solution.For those spatial ASPs that create their own web-only GIS or mapping applications and deliver them to consumers, there is likely no "product quality" guarantee available.Despite every best effort, application "bugs" still persist and often display themselves at the most critical of times, even in a spatial ASP.

Another unique feature in the SLA is the frequency, period and metrics for measuring the network up-time.Also included is a clearly stated, concise "credit policy" for when the network does go down, and it will go down.The consumer should know how and when a credit will be given, and how to resolve disputes.

While it is not the intention of the spatial ASP to create a crisis situation, the prudent consumer will also ensure that the SLA will contain sufficient language to guard against loss of ownership of any data, intellectual property or specialized applications in the event that the spatial ASP, or any related partner organization ceases to conduct business or otherwise ends the relationship with the consumer.This is an often overlooked aspect of the SLA, but should be given adequate attention due to the relative risks at hand.To avoid some of these risks, the consumer should also demand financial reporting and conduct due diligence on the spatial ASP before executing an agreement.

Other aspects of the SLA that should be included and explicit are the details on any technical support / customer service provisions, upgrades for applications, network and hardware, training, integration and customization services.Many ASPs will position these services as additional cost items, while some may have included them in the solution offering.The consumer is simply advised to consider these points during the evaluation and comparison of SLAs.

Quality of Service
With respect to data integrity, loss and consistency, the SLA should contain specific and sufficient details on how the spatial ASP will provide and ensure Quality of Service (QoS) for the contracted solution.This is a significant issue, especially for those spatial ASPs that intend to deliver their products and applications over the public domain internet.The basic foundation for QoS is being able to:

  • Minimize the delay in IP packet delivery
  • Minimize variations in IP packet delays
  • Provide capacity with consistent data throughput

QoS becomes a mission-critical aspect in a spatial ASP, especially in an environment that is "always-on" and that provides real-time, focused spatial data.High QoS should be evident to the user by the virtual transparency of the data transmission network.In other words, a spatial ASP that has acceptable QoS should be able to deliver, in a consistent manner, the same or better service as the consumer would get if the application and data were in an local computing environment.

Security
This issue receives a considerable amount of attention and rightfully so considering the stream of well-publicized security breaches at major corporations in recent months.While it is important, security should not have a paralyzing effect on the decision-making process in considering a spatial ASP.The reason is that there is sufficient strategies to implement both physical facilities security and network security and those strategies need to be implemented correctly and effectively.

Physical security for the data center hosting facility is relatively straightforward and very sophisticated.Such preventive measures would include continuous video surveillance cameras and 24x7 guard patrols, electronic security system including fire, smoke and water detection, motion detection and compartmented authorization and access locks for internal and external doors.Independent power supplies and a rigorous maintenance regime are also necessary to ensure continuity of service in the event of power failure or natural catastrophe.

Network security, while very sophisticated as well, continues to evolved and adapt at incredible rates as technology continues to develop and be compromised.To begin, a combination of hardware and software security measures, at various points of entry to the system should be employed.There are several hardware encryption devices that can deployed at the point of departure from the network firewall.In addition, the standard SSL 128-bit encryption protocols provide sufficient bit-stream security for transmitting data from the spatial ASP to the appropriate consumers.This, combined with a Virtual Private Network (VPN) and a robust authentication and authorization scheme, most ASP data center hosting facilities will be more secure than a customer's LAN.

All of this security is focused on ensuring that only those authorized to gain access to data and/or applications are specifically allowed to do so, and then only those areas that have been determined by the customer organization.This security regime is not unlike most corporate WAN/LAN architectures, for example - a clerical employee may not have access privileges to the corporate accounting and salary information but can still gain access to email and other intranet information pertinent to their particular job.

Total Cost of Ownership
All of the hardware, software and latest technology are of little consequence if the strategy for implementing a spatial ASP does not have a compelling economic reality.Notwithstanding recent activities in the dot-com world, there continues to be solid, financially viable strategies to pursue a spatial ASP model, particularly in the telecommunications industry.

One of the most attractive aspects for telecom operators in adopting a spatial ASP is the reduced cost of capital expenditures for GIS solutions.By adopting an outsourcing strategy through a spatial ASP, the telecom operating company can eliminate a significant portion of the overhead costs associated with internal spatial support services.This includes the costs of software licensing, upgrades, maintenance, technical support, hardware, IT support and high-end desktop PCs.It also includes eliminating the need for backup, archiving, storage and restoration infrastructure because the ASP is likely to offer those services as well if they are not already included as part of a packaged solution.This moves the telecom operator from a capital expenditures budget to service contracts, a very important distinction.

Another compelling economic point is the flexibility in configuration and implementation.A spatial ASP solution can be easily modified to suite the needs on individual users without requiring internal IT support for installation of new software or components.Since the spatial ASP is driven through a browser-type thin-client application, there is little need for continual maintenance and training by the user to take advantage of the application.This translates into a faster time to productivity than a traditional internal GIS operation, which can take months to build and staff properly.

Another critical point in the financial picture is the gain in productivity, and the corresponding decrease in costs associated with down-time.Since the SLA with the spatial ASP would be in the 99%+ range, this translates into twenty hours or less of down-time per user work year.This is considerably less down-time than many organizations' internal LANs, and the cost-savings alone from this benefit could justify the ASP strategy.

Finally, a spatial ASP approach to managing a utility's spatial data helps to eliminate the redundant costs so common within an organization.In a spatial ASP, one landbase data set can service the telecom engineering group, the marketing departments and the maintenance department, rather than having multiple versions and copies of the same geography maintained in multiple groups.Likewise, the telecom company can leverage both economies of scale and economies of skill.Because the spatial ASP maintains a core staff that services multiple accounts, each individual consumer can benefit from shared resources (data center hosting facilities, expert IT and GIS staff, technical support, etc.), and at the same time, reconfigure their internal staffing requirements to take full advantage of the outsourced spatial ASP.

Internal vs.External ASP
Now that the core issues surrounding the decision to pursue a spatial ASP have been discussed, one other key decision should be addressed.That is, the strategy of outsourcing non-core functions to a spatial ASP vendor or constructing the business unit within the current organization to deliver those same services to the other business units and locations.

There are considerable merits in both strategies.First, by keeping these functions as an internal business unit there is the satisfaction and "peace of mind" that comes with having "employees" rather than "vendors" managing business-critical information.Also, oftentimes the resources and infrastructure in many mid to large organizations are just as well prepared to deliver the spatial ASP services as an external organization.There is also the benefit for an internal ASP that is familiar with the culture of a corporation, rather than dealing with an outside entity that may take months or years to adapt to a company's business culture.

However, in an internal spatial ASP, there still needs to be the same level of formality and structure in establishing an SLA and other "contractual" standards so as not to fall victim to a corporate complacency that is also endemic to many cultures.If the internal spatial ASP cannot fulfill it's service mission then there is little chance it will realize the full potential to the organization.

In considering an external spatial ASP vendor, cost is the primary driver for most organizations.The spatial ASP can provide opportunities for economies of scale and economies of "skill" where an internal spatial ASP would not be able to do so.Because a spatial ASP vendor provides core services to many different industries and clients, they can spread overhead and infrastructure costs across multiple revenue-generating clients, whereas the internal spatial ASP serves only "one" customer.

Secondly, an external spatial ASP is more likely to stay current with technologies that further improve it's services to the market.It will continue to re-invest in capital improvements such as storage, servers, security, provisioning, communications, etc.because of competitive pressures, while an internal ASP would likely be allotted an operating budget that does not allow for such interim improvements in technology.

Lastly, the spatial ASP vendor is able to leverage industry presence with various technology and content providers to create a better value proposition than an internal ASP can assemble independently.By negotiating larger volume discounts and strategic alliances, the spatial ASP vendor is able to provide a greater variety of options to the "consumer" than would be possible otherwise and still provide a less costly solution based on total cost of ownership.

CONTENT IS KING

As demonstrated, the fundamental technology for delivering GIS and mapping solutions through the ASP is existing, and continues to improve both in quality and availability.However, the very best in technology and applications is of little value unless there is "something" to deliver, that is, spatial data.Without content to populate databases or to conduct analysis with, the spatial ASP holds little intrinsic value.This point is not lost on the growing number of "data product vendors" in the market today.These information providers play an important role with both the end-consumer and the spatial ASP vendors.

Consumers will drive what specific data a vendor will create and provide (ie.Roads, demographics, cell tower locations), and the spatial ASP vendor will need to incorporate and integrate those various data products into the suite of spatial solutions that are offered as a service through the ASP.Many spatial content providers have refined and developed mature processes for delivering their products in the internet domain.This fits comfortably with the overall business model for an ASP, with only minor accommodations needed to the pricing models.

Delivery of spatial data, on demand, to a wide variety of users through a spatial ASP solution is an encouraging market for the data product vendors.This also provides a sufficient variety of choices for the user-consumer, and ensures that the best-price for best-value is reinforced in the market.

In the telecommunications market, leveraging spatial data products in an ASP solution is a smart strategy.It avoids costly redundancy in base map data, or disparate portions of data that are "out of control" and consequently result in untimely decisions or inaccurate projects.Utilizing the same spatial data for all departments in a telecommunication organization not only maximizes the productivity, it also reduces the cost per unit by implementing the spatial data in an ASP.The spatial data content can be customized and delivered to specific user-groups within the organization yet managed and controlled centrally in the ASP.

ASP DEPLOYMENT

The architecture of a spatial ASP can range from simple to extremely complex.Where the particular deployment architecture of a given spatial ASP solution falls on that continuum depends largely on the solution itself.For those spatial solutions that require a "read-only" viewing capability, where a "client" machine makes a request of some spatial data, then a relatively simple architecture can be deployed.This example is similar to Expedia.com, MapQuest.com or other "locating" services.These solutions do not need a complex architecture because the solution is composed of only a few components.

However, a more robust solution, one that requires mobile field access, "read-write" capabilities for remote data editing or creation, conflict resolution, provisioning, billing, etc., the architecture is highly complex.Add to this the communication needs for large-volume data transmission, terminal emulation via Citrix MetaFrame or others, and the spatial ASP deployment becomes an intricate operation requiring the highest level technical and operations management skills.

As illustrated in Figure 1.0 below, the spatial ASP deployment is similar to a traditional WAN, however the core mission of the spatial ASP is to provide location-specific utilities rather than a general purpose network.This illustration depicts a mid-level spatial solution, designed for utilities and telecommunications companies that have multi-use personnel accessing the system from geographically disperse locations.

Figure 1.0 - (Click to enlarge)

LICENSING CONSIDERATIONS

There are several pricing models put forth by the ASP vendors, and while the process of refining these models continues, there are two basic options for clients; unlimited access and per unit.
Unlimited Access
This general pricing model allows a user to pay a fixed fee in exchange for access to the application solution at any time, for an unlimited amount of time.For simplified accounting purposes, clients are typically billed and usage quantified on a monthly or quarterly basis.

In this model, an organization that wanted to have ten (10) users to have access 24x7, would sign up for the service at the flat rate, per month, for each user.This is an attractive model for organizations that need predictable costs on an monthly or yearly basis.It is also useful in organizations that have little fluctuation in their "consumption" demands for the service.In other words, if the ten users will have a consistent demand for the duration of the service agreement and the number of users is not likely to vary, then this pricing model is likely to best suite the needs of the organization.

Most ASP vendors will offer basic solution packages for the fixed fee, and then offer a catalog of additional services that users can request, and these costs build on the base fee per user.This allows greater flexibility per user and provides a means for the user to customize individual solutions.

Per Unit
This option for pricing is analogous to residential telephone service or wireless calling plan.There is a base price per unit, typically in minutes or in some cases, seconds, that are charged per user when access is authorized to a given solution.

This too is for a basic application solution and additional features or components would add to the base cost per unit.The system captures a user's log-in time to the system as well as the log-off time, and then computes the corresponding units for billing purposes.For simplified accounting purposes, these times are aggregated to a monthly consumption, and then billed accordingly.

This is an attractive option for those organizations with cyclical demand and staffing needs such as project management companies or other service firms that operate in the telecommunications industry.This allows them the flexibility to leverage the spatial ASP without committing capital resources to maintaining internal infrastructure and operations and still service their respective clients' needs.

The drawback to this pricing option is that is there is no predictability in monthly costs due to the cyclical and temporal nature of the individual user's consumption of the service.

OBSTACLES TO OVERCOME

Despite the considerable merits and advantages of the spatial ASP model, there are still several major obstacles that will require radical innovation by industry stalwarts in order for the ASP model and consumers to realize the maximum benefit.

First, software and data vendor licensing of traditional products is inconsistent with the premise of the ASP business model.There are many excellent applications that have loyal users, and these same applications can be delivered through the ASP model, however not cost-effectively with the traditional licensing model still in use today.The ASP model demands a true pay-as-you-go licensing model, one that generates income for the spatial ASP, the ISV, the data vendor and other partners as new consumers are signed-up for the various solutions.The current licensing model requires the spatial ASP to either develop their own applications (which is costly and risky for everyone) or invest significant sums of capital in purchasing licenses and then "re-selling" them as packaged ASP solutions.While this model is popular with software and data vendors, it does not advance the ASP model and technology past the initial early-adopters, and it certainly is not a profitable approach for the spatial ASP.This hurts the consumer in the end, because if the spatial ASP is encumbered by onerous licensing requirements in delivering spatial ASP solutions, then the risk of failure is needlessly exaggerated.

CONCLUSIONS

It is clear from the growing GIS industry support that the ASP model for delivering spatial solutions is a clear strategic alternative for consumers and vendors.Service providers continue to find new and innovative ways to build and integrate various location-based solutions and delivery cost-effective products to a variety of industries and markets.

There is still a considerable amount of work to be done by the software, database and content vendors to help propel the ASP model beyond early adopters.This includes a more favorable licensing model and continuing to develop core products designed to deliver greater analytical functionality through the ASP model.

However, the spatial ASP model infrastructure, products, solutions, content and demand are all present for the business model to succeed in delivering innovative spatial solutions to a variety of industries and consumers.

RESOURCES

The author has provided these resources solely for the reader's benefit and as such, does not endorse or promote any corporations or products listed.

ASP Industry Consortium: www.aspindustry.org
ASPStreet.com: www.aspstreet.com
ASP.com: www.asp.com
Open GIS Consortium (OGC): www.opengis.org
Citrix Systems, Inc.: www.citrix.com
Exodus Communications: www.exodus.net
WebHarbor.com: www.webharbor.com

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The author would like to thank Dr.Robert F.Austin, PhD for his assistance and guidance during the course of developing the concepts and information found in this paper.

Published Thursday, January 31st, 2002

Written by Anthony J. Quartararo III



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