Hybrid GIS Architectures: The Best of Both Worlds

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In this special guest feature, Anthony Calamito, Chief Geospatial Officer at Boundless, an open GIS provider, discusses hybrid architectures (proprietary + open source software) for geographic information systems (GIS). As open source becomes more and more popular, enterprises are often perplexed by how to incorporate it into their existing systems, and this piece aims to demystify that process. Anthony serves as the Chief Geospatial Officer for Boundless and is responsible for product strategy and outreach, educational initiatives, and our ongoing commitment to the open source community. Anthony is a steering committee member at LocationTech, and a Fellow of the American Geographical Society. His commitment to geography education and community outreach extends beyond Boundless — he is also an adjunct instructor at George Mason University.

The adoption of open source technology continues to spread, as modern enterprises become aware of the benefits that come with incorporating it into their holistic computing strategy. The geospatial community is no exception to the growing embrace of open source. Some organizations are motivated by the realization that most of their data is already geo-enabled but vastly underutilized. Others know that virtually all data will be geo-enabled one day, and that their current IT architecture won’t be able to handle the volume or complexity of it.

A core benefit of open source is that it can work in tandem with pre-existing architectures – the concept of open source software existing harmoniously alongside previously installed proprietary software is called a “hybrid architecture.” There are a number of geospatial-specific benefits to integrating open source geospatial software as part of a hybrid architecture:

1. Better Software Utilization

Most organizations do not take advantage of or even need the maximum capabilities that they’re paying for with proprietary software. Known as the 80/20 rule, this means that 80 percent of users only use about 20 percent of the software’s total functionality. In the GIS world, this represents users who are plotting dots on a map, exporting simple overlays as JPEGs, digitizing vector content from imagery, and conducting simple analysis. The “power users” who perform more complex and in-depth analytical functions are the minority, representing just 20 percent of the entire user base.

This begs the question: Is it worth investing in proprietary software if you aren’t – and likely, won’t ever – use its full potential? For the 80 percent of users who simply want to geo-enable their content, integrating open source alternatives can achieve rapid cost savings without downgrading capabilities for power users.

2. Economic Scalability

Proprietary software typically requires counting licenses based on a number of instances, users or cores, which can be risky and unsustainable as organizations move into more elastic cloud environments. With a proprietary model, if you unexpectedly need to increase the number of instances due to an unforeseen event, you are charged for each additional license needed. Why commit to licensing that could end up hindering your growth?

Open source software allows you to scale as much as you need, handling increased loads and additional locations without incurring unexpected costs.

3. Lower Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)

Beyond software license costs, a typical proprietary software environment may include additional hidden costs. Individually, these costs may seem nominal, but they can add up quickly and dramatically increase the TCO.

A common misconception is that the term “open source” means “free.” While it’s true that there are no costs to license open source software, there can be costs associated with transitioning to open source environments. However, these costs are much less than licensing costs – and the corresponding infrastructure and personnel costs – of proprietary software.

4. More Technical Agility and Skilled Staff

In a single-vendor approach, product development is constrained by the vendor’s roadmap, which isn’t necessarily responsive to every customer’s needs. End users have little chance to influence product change, and instead must await each release to receive the latest capabilities and benefits. With a hybrid strategy, the participation of multiple vendors allows for more flexibility and more incentive to build new features and improve overall performance.

A hybrid approach can also benefit your own staff. A single-vendor shop is limited by the skill set of their in-house IT staff, which makes technology changes more difficult. Single-vendor strategies become self-fulfilling over time – they start as a choice, but turn into a requirement. With hybrid architecture, your staff can develop a mix of skills, reducing the pain of change within your technology organization. Ultimately, your business retains flexibility and adds agility with a hybrid strategy.

5. Compatibility with Modern IT

Open source is becoming the standard for infrastructure software, with virtual container software replacing bare metal server hardware. Open source technology enables virtualized infrastructure, containerization, and software automation. As a result, open source geospatial software is specifically designed to operate in these modern architectures, and can therefore be installed and integrated into modern IT architectures with less work.

6. Project Resilience and Continuity

Perhaps the greatest benefit of adopting open source as part of a hybrid architecture is the resilience and continuity it builds within an organization. Developing projects in the open ensures that each member of an organization has visibility into it, which allows for more thorough source code review and bug mitigation. Additionally, if an employee leaves the organization, others can pick up their work with little interruption.

Ensuring that a project is not reliant on any one company, technology or developer and increasing visibility into the project leads to faster solution adoption in the end.

7. Phased Migration

Because open source GIS software can integrate seamlessly alongside existing proprietary solutions, organizations can make the migration at their own pace, while preserving existing resources, as opposed to a rip-and-replace approach.

Open source is built on the use of standards, and interoperability is built in as you migrate away from proprietary. This holds true at the database, application server, and user interface tier – because none of the components have strict dependencies on one another, you can integrate open source one tier at a time, without interrupting the entire enterprise.

Where to Start

Ultimately, the successful implementation of a hybrid architecture requires proper planning and embracing a methodical process. Make sure to set a realistic timeline, including one to three months to review requirements and determine your needs, up to six months to consolidate your data to an authoritative source, and as much as a year to see the results. The interoperability, scalability, availability, flexibility, agility, reliability, and accessibility of a hybrid GIS architecture – with the reduced risk and added value that follow – are worth the wait.


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