Esri rolls out ArcGIS map services for the cloud

Esri today rolled out an ambitious cloud offering for government and enterprise customers that allows users to create data-driven maps and map services without ArcGIS servers or desktop software.

ArcGIS Online organizational subscriptions, in beta since December, also provide:

Tools for application development using geospatial data;

An open API for integration with software such as Microsoft Office, Salesforce and Cognos;

Mapping of data within Excel as long as that data has a street address or city name (geocoding will be automatic);

Cataloging of GIS assets, making such data easier to find (and less likely to be duplicated by others in an organization who don't know it's there);

Private sharing among internal groups;

Maps that display across numerous mobile devices as well as in Web browsers;

And hosting on either public or private cloud infrastructure.

"One way to describe it -- and here's a big sentence -- is that ArcGIS Online is a mapping platform, a new geospatial enterprise platform but especially focusing in on mapping," said Esri founder and President Jack Dangermond in a phone interview with Computerworld (see related story). "It has other services in there, like geocoding services across the enterprise or spatial analysis services that can be deployed across the enterprise, but the basic thing that most people recognize it for is that it has really cool maps.

"Think Google Maps, but with authoritative source information behind it or one's own enterprise information shared in a cloud exclusively within the enterprise or deployed in the cloud, behind a firewall or not," Dangermond said.

The creation of map services, he added, builds on the open data movement by making it easier to deploy information in a way that's more easily used and understood by non-GIS specialists -- without the need for a dedicated GIS server.

"This platform allows people without a server to be able to take their data, send it over to ArcGIS Online [and] turn it immediately into a map service which is accessible by browsers and by mobile devices," he said. "In the past, people could do that sort of thing with our server technology. But it meant that they had to buy a server, they had to stand up a server, they had to do system administration on the server, they had to build the application that would make this map come alive.

"With the ArcGIS Online environment, I can take a beautiful map that I built on the desktop, right click, send it over to online and it turns it into a service and an application that's immediately available."

One beta tester, Sussex County in New Jersey, used ArcGIS Online to develop applications for residents to find information about current road and bridge closings, trash pickup times and government services locators for things such as nearest library and post office. These use ArcGIS Online templates and "highly customized canned applications" to create things that would have been difficult for the county's three-person GIS team to create from scratch, according to David N. Kunz, county GIS manager.

"It has really jumpstarted or accelerated [achieving] the goals that we've had," Kunz said. "It's quicker and faster and cheaper."

The county also worked with two dozen municipalities to more easily update an address database for 911 dispatchers. In the past, he said, towns would compile spreadsheets of address information and then send them along to be re-entered in proper GIS format. Instead, the county was able to create a Web application, put it in a private group and let municipal workers add address points themselves. That information then gets properly inserted into a county database, instead of county workers having to re-enter the data.

In addition, the address database can be used by others in the county, such as when the Health Department does restaurant inspections. That means multiple departments don't each have to maintain separate databases with similar information. "For county government, that [data sharing] is huge," he said.

Another local government beta tester, Salem, Ore., created a beta site for public use with ArcGIS Online tools. "We do great with managing data and cranking out hard copy of products, but it's that sharing of the data, the delivery portion, that's a challenge," said Susan Blohm, IT supervisor for the city of Salem. ArcGIS Online offers a "framework to get all GIS under one roof," she said. "That will help us improve service."

Both GIS and non-GIS workers participated in the Salem program. After short training sessions, "a handful of them needed a little more coaching but a majority of them were off and running," said Dan Brown, GIS enterprise technical lead in Salem. "People started to create maps."

"We had to do very little hand-holding," Blohm said.

Neither Sussex County nor Salem officials said they plan to move a majority of their GIS data and applications into the cloud. Sussex created what Kunz called a lot of "hybrid" applications -- partially on county infrastructure and partly in the cloud. Salem is likely to use the cloud for redundancy as opposed to making a wholesale shift to it at the outset, Blohm said.

ArcGIS Online organizational subscriptions cost $500 per year per user for a minimum of five users, including credits for CPU use, data storage and bandwidth, Dangermond said. The credits are designed to be enough for "normal" use, although not necessarily for a public site receiving a million visits a day, or storage of, say, satellite imagery for the planet, Dangermond said.

The per-user price drops to $200/year for a thousand users. Customers who already have an Esri Enterprise License Agreement will receive ArcGIS Online subscriptions for unlimited users and credits for each user.

Although it may be difficult in the current fiscal environment for municipalities to get funding for anything new, Blohm said, "I think the ROI is there" for ArcGIS Online organization subscriptions.

"I do see value in this product," Brown added. "As it grows I can see our online presence growing with it."

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