To Cloud or Not to Cloud is Not the Question

November 17, 2016

You don’t have to look very hard right now to find all kinds of articles and marketing material on cloud strategies and cloud deployments. GIS is no exception. With the rapid adoption of ArcGIS Online, most Esri customers are already dipping their toes into the cloud, if not fully embracing it.

A recent Gartner study points out that in 2016, worldwide public cloud services will grow by 16.5 percent, and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) will grow by over 38 percent.

This is a positive development. Within the next few years, almost all GIS systems will be substantially, if not fully, leveraging cloud services. To pretend otherwise is foolhardy. Overall, the benefits of cloud systems (flexibility, simplicity and accessibility) will drive GIS deployments in this direction.

Moving to the cloud won’t be easy, nor will it be without new challenges. In speaking with customers, I hear many concerns about moving to the cloud; this is understandable. It’s actually a good thing – we should be carefully considering how we move our GIS systems to the cloud and not just diving in blind.

I hear several myths about the cloud; these myths are often used to resist examining cloud services as a component of GIS.  Some examples include:

We’re not looking at cloud over security concerns. The security of our GIS is very important, no doubt. However, the fact is most mature cloud service platforms are likely ‘more’ secure than any on-premises infrastructure.  Here’s a good article discussing cloud myths.

We can’t store our data outside of Canada.  This is the issue of data residency. There are policies in place at many organizations that dictate where data can be stored. Often, these policies only refer to Personally Identifiable Information (e.g. credit card data, health data or other data that is linked to an individual).  Other types of data which are more common in a GIS, such as park benches, forest stands, fire hydrants, contour lines and others, are usually not covered by these policies. These datasets are not considered personally identifiable information and, as such, can be stored anywhere.

Even if your organization has an inflexible blanket policy, you can still leverage the cloud. Microsoft’s Azure cloud services have two Canadian zones, and Amazon has one coming soon. So you can use Esri’s ArcGIS Server Cloud Builder technology with these and benefit from the cloud, while meeting Canadian data residency requirements.

Yet, there’s something much more important than debating the details of technical security or ensuring private data is protected.  These are largely technical exercises for which there are existing solutions. Simply debating whether or how much to use cloud solutions as opposed to continuing with on-premises infrastructure overlooks the more important aspect of embracing the web GIS pattern.

Web GIS focuses on re-imagining GIS as a system of engagement and insight for organizations and communities. It’s about looking at the participants in a GIS (employees, partners and citizens), who have an identity in the GIS. It is about understanding the needs of these users, and what the web GIS should be for them. Web GIS is about thinking of GIS not as a catalogue of layers that someone can view or download, but rather as a content management system where data can be shared in a collaborative environment.

So, let’s stop debating whether or not to move to the cloud because eventually, we will. Instead, let’s change how we think about GIS and start thinking about what we need to deploy now to engage members of our community so GIS can start working for them.

The good news is you can implement web GIS anywhere – on your own infrastructure, cloud infrastructure or in a Software as a Service (SaaS) model, such as ArcGIS Online.

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