It seems that on almost a daily basis we are seeing articles about the cloud. Dell recently announced that it is investing $1 billion in ten new data centers. The same day IBM announces a cloud initiative that they project will bring in $15 billion in revenue. The cloud efforts by Amazon and Microsoft are widely known.
One industry that stands to benefit the most from adopting this technology is Geographic Information Systems or GIS. The concept of storing data in the cloud, including LiDAR has revolutionized how weas an industryaccess and store geospatial data. This concept is important because the GIS field is arguably one of the most data-intense fields in the technology sector, and our Achilles heel has always been information overload.
Companies and agencies who handle large amounts of geospatial data should be interested in these efforts as they will likely impact how these organizations do business in the future. The current model for many GIS organizations is to maintain a suite of servers and manage the distribution of data to its employees and customers. This undertaking is expensive and complex. It also represents major fixed costs within any organization. Organizations pay for this infrastructure whether it is being used or not.
The cloud model has the potential to change how data is distributed from both a technical and business standpoint. Various providers of imagery and terrain data are either offering their data via web services or are moving in that direction. Other companies are consolidating a range of data types and offering them on one site.
The Open Geospatial Consortium states that the cloud model offers the following three options for delivering data:
Web Map Service (WMS) is a standard protocol for serving georeferenced map images over the Internet that are generated by a map server using data from a GIS database. The specification was developed and first published by the Open Geospatial Consortium in 1999.
Web Coverage Service Interface Standard (WCS) provides an interface allowing requests for geographical coverages across the web using platform-independent calls. The coverages are objects (or images) in a geographical area. In contrast, the WMS interface or online mapping portals like Google Maps return only an image, which end users cannot edit or spatially analyze.
Web Feature Service (WFS) represents a change in the way geographic information is created, modified, and exchanged on the Internet. Rather than sharing geographic information at the file level using File Transfer Protocol (FTP), for example, the WFS offers direct fine-grained access to geographic information at the feature and feature property level.
Why the cloud?
In the current economic environment, it is critical that businesses and agencies look for ways to lower cost and improve efficiency. Organizations are looking at cloud computing because it can help them lower cost by reducing hardware and personnel while increasing productivity. The actual reported level of these cost savings ranges from 25% to 90%. The City of Miami, Florida was hosting 27 terabytes of data to support 311 services. By moving to the cloud, it realized a savings of 75% in the first year (Microsoft Case Study Cited in Brookings Institution Study Cost Savings Through Cloud Computing). These advantages allow businesses to offer services more efficiently to their customers.
The GIS community is taking advantage of cloud computing by combining GIS information, cached map tiles, such as aerial and satellite data, and demographic and topographic data from across the globe. You can access publically and commercially available data and manipulate it with web-provided tools. You can have your agency data hosted by the vendor.
A major change is in the works as to how geospatial data can be stored and distributed. Cashed strapped government agencies and businesses have an emerging option that dramatically reduces the cost of hosting and serving large amounts of data within an agency. Several western states are already in the process of examining the cost savings and implications of moving to a hosted solution.
Jeremy Hale is a Regional Business Manager at I-Cubed.