The future of internet GIS - An opportunity all the way
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Internet is revolutionising the way we do business by delivering compelling technologies that answer real needs. Over the last one-decade business models have changed with the influence of Internet/Intranet. Companies like Ford and General Motors are asking for the vendor to either provide application software products and the solution over Internet or wind-off the solution. This is not a threat but a challenge for all the vendors who would like to be in computer business providing end-to-end customer solutions. Many more companies are also going the Ford way and the trend is going to continue having profound influence on how we do business. In these changed scenario countries like India, which is sitting on a crest of knowledge explosion is going to harvest this immensely popular technology which is both cost effective and user friendly.
Clearly, the GIS industry also has recognized this revolution and is actively involved in its design. For a technology like GIS which requires multi-disciplinary expertise a distributed model like the internet are the ideal tools for providing end-user specific application without having to have a data set on the client machine. The geographic data, which is so scare and expansive, can be shared across different users to arrive at many business goals. The efforts are on to simplify the task of implementation and provide useful tools for carrying out mission critical application. These efforts will support applications, which reduce operating expenses faster, increase productivity and dramatically improve customer satisfaction and retention.
This article illuminates the bright future of Internet GIS.
GIS professionals worldwide are becoming increasingly aware of Web-based solutions for GIS. These professionals are mostly concerned with today's facts and not future predictions. So why consider the future of Internet GIS? The answer is that Internet's distributed computing environment is revolutionizing the way we do business by delivering compelling technologies, which answer real needs. Clearly, the GIS industry has recognized this revolution and is actively involved in its design, despite the added complexity introduced by managing spatial database; databases that are both delicate and, by any definition, massive. This effort is characterized in part by the Open GIS Consortium's Web Mapping Test Bed. The reward for these efforts is expected to be a well-designed architecture that delivers efficient and powerful usage of computing infrastructures. The emerging architecture will support applications, which reduce operating expenses faster, increase productivity and dramatically improve customer satisfaction and retention.
While no computing environment has been entirely eliminated (mainframe and workstation computing is still active), the industry has seen the introduction and rapid adoption of desktop and now distributed models. Distributed computing is a generic term that includes other terms like Internet, Intranet, Extranet, the Web, net-work-centric, and more. Regardless of the terminology, the growing trend is to distribute computing services across a physical infrastructure of networked data storage devices and computer processors. The newer environment includes both two and three tier model where the physical locations of the data storage and application processing are not on the same machine (or in the same country) as each other or the client interface. It is this migration from a workstation or desktop's one-tier solution to a component and transaction-based model that is reshaping the future of GIS.
The majority of end-users no longer receive GIS in a product box. For example, consider AreaData Online (www.areadata.co.uk) by CACI, a European business demographic company. This company hosts a map and reporting service where GIS is purchased on a per use basis. The future has arrived! GIS is delivered today as a fast, reliable and secure service through a network cable, as a hosted application, across shared enterprises servers.
Understanding the Past Helps Us Foresee the Future
In 1993, Argus Technologies of Canada launched a GIS product designed specifically for the protocols of distributed computing. Rather than force a GIS designed for the desktop to deliver maps to any Web browser via static raster images, this team of visionaries introduced a solution based on a suite of tools that included an intelligent client interface. That client/server technology delivered live, interactive GIS vector data with raster imagery and streamed it directly to a Web browser. It gave end-users the ability to select, buffer and further analyse spatial data without burdening network bandwidth and map servers with constant redundant requests. The result? Within a single organisation, thousands of end-users got compelling functionality and lightening fast performance while the Web administrators got efficient systems with truly distributed servers, scalability and security. And the software had a friendly, open and flexible development interface for fast implementation and the addition of functionality like digitising or redlining. This solution introduced a data format designed specifically for fast network delivery of vector data and required the installation of intelligent browser plug-ins or controls.
Other vendors chose to leverage their existing GIS products by delivering raster map images generated by these desktop products. This approach was designed to capitalise on the legions of their existing desktop users and deliver maps to the Web browsers in the only formats they inherently accepted without an intelligent plug-in. That format was, and still is, static or 'dumb' raster images and the supporting architecture is an unbalanced and inefficient systems that burdens servers with all the processing and requires far more network traffic for a typical user session. Autodesk on the other hand, recognized the compelling network-centric solution offered by Argus Technologies and acquired that company in 1995. Since then, Autodesk has continued to improve this solution through four major and consistent releases. The response has been extremely positive and over the next few years, users will continue to demand from their vendors interactive GIS such as they have currently on their desktop to-day but delivered in a distributed environment.
GIS vendors announce new versions of their original Web products promising more functionality, like streaming vectors and greater interactivity. While features and architectures may be new to these product lines, they are not new to the industry. The basic distributed computing architectures and approaches have been around for years. Nevertheless, one thing is clear: distributed computing for GIS is an evolving model, which is working to establish a standard trend. Professionals should beware of the hidden and unpredictable development and maintenance costs associated with systems that are constructed as extensions to legacy environments. The computing industry is rife with victims of proprietary systems who chose to remain with a single vendor despite compelling, complimentary and open architectures offered by other strong technologies.
In order to achieve the goal of reduced costs, increased productivity and improved customer satisfaction, the future of Internet GIS will embrace the following principles.
The future of Internet GIS is bright and brimming with opportunities. There will be opportunities to reduce operating expenses by, among other things, accessing and paying for GIS functionality on an 'as needed' basis through a cable and not having to invest in the technology overkill of boxed desktop products. We will find opportunities to increase productivity not only by placing friendly GIS interfaces at the disposal of novice users, but by placing it in their palm computers, as well. Smart companies with fast deployment tools will extend GIS-based service to their staff who will use these applications to retain customers more predictably.
All these opportunities are now appearing alongside the adoption of distributed, intelligent architectures combined with effective tools for development. And when offered with client interfaces that make GIS easy to use for everyone, the result is a vivid reminder of the power of GIS. The power of geographic analysis, matched with distributed computing's power to increase the return on huge investments in spatial data by putting information in the hands of millions, will make a difference.