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The ache of almost being in the sweet spot September 14, 2010

Posted by grimmeister in Geoinformatics.

Freshly back from another inspiring FOSS4G, Barcelona, I returned full of enthusiasm to slay a particular dragon of mine:

Our research organisation is a long term ESRI shop, where geographers, ecologists, planners, statisticians, remote sensing specialists and other assorted scientists have been happily using ArcGIS/INFO/View Desktop software for many moons. It is a semi-pointless battle to convince older users in particular of any benefits of using FOSS4G tools on the desktop – they have tools that they know well and perform the necessary tasks (even if we are talking venerable tools like ArcView 3.x). Convenience is a huge factor for such users, who do not necessarily consider themselves as GIS practioners in the first place, and will simply not be interested in learning a whole new GIS tool.

On the other hand, our organisation is supposed to push boundaries with FOSS in a country where we have a mandated FOSS policy. Now, there are a number of researchers who happen to run forms of Linux or who are comfortable with FOSS4G softwares, and are quite excited by the possibilites for pushing such software into all sort of nooks, crannies and other experimental places in conjunction with other FOSS apps, libraries and components.

In the middle of this situation, the organisation is trying to implement an enterprise SDI, from a modest budget that must fund a number of floating and single use ArcView and ArcInfo licenses. Since the folk who are actually running the implementation process are 1) not really GIS users or 2) have not tasted the yummy FOSS4G Kool Aid or 3) are from the IT department where certification and promises of support are paramount, the convenient thing to do has been to let the local ESRI guys lead the implementation thought process. The wisened amongst you will recognise the VAR wet dream. Indeed, the ArcGIS Server was shipped before you could say boo! to a goose. So the plan was an enterprise ArcSDE spatial database running on Oracle, serving all its wonderful goodness to our licensed Arc* users and the occasional WMS through ArcGIS Server. Sweet. Except for a nagging issue (well, I would call it that)….

Like, umm, what about us?!! The non-ESRI desktop users?!!! You know, the slightly geekier, poorer, maybe more experimental types???!! Are we to sit on the edge of the SDI hoping for a WFS tidbit (if the implementation of ArcGIS server even bothers with such a thing). Of course, it would be easy enough to run a parallel SDI on a FOSS stack, but that is not particularly constructive is it? Luckily Oracle to the rescue…

More precisely, its licensing fee structure. The expense of it. Too much for our modestly funded SDI effort, considering our need to share spatial data, originating in Oracle, over the web. Now, a while ago, I had sown the seed of a possible PostGIS backed ArcSDE for our enterprise, and had even experimented with such a configuration, concluding that we may just get by with it if limited editing/ upload capability was allowed for FOSS4G type clients – at least we would be able to work with shared read-only data and happily serve up W*S’s through GeoServer/MapServer.

ArcCatalog - Openlayers off Geoserver - QGIS direct read of SDE on PostGIS

So, re-enter me, fresh from FOSS4G, keen to see if PostGIS could be dropped into the enterprise, just like that!

Some annoying realities intruded to burst my wee little bubble. The PostGIS/SDE 9.3 combination is only supported on 32 bit Windows machines, and 32 bit Enterprise Linux flavours. I have been enjoying the bounteous riches of 64 bit Ubuntu (that really free OS) for some years now , so was a bit taken aback, worsened by the discovery that SDE 9.3 is only supported on Postgres 8.3.0 with PostGIS 1.3.2.  http://wikis.esri.com/wiki/display/ag93bsr/ArcSDE+PostgreSQL+Database+Requirements. No Prepared Geometries, Cascaded Unions, Geography Types, Window Queries, etc . I feel this is very weak support, but hey, at the least, we could still have PostGIS geometries, for what they are worth.

But then I let a sneaking suspicion re-enter my mind: nobody in the organisation really makes use of the powerful features of SDE, like versioning, geodatabase modelling, multi-user editing, etc, so why do we need ArcSDE/ArcGIS Server in the first place….? To test this, we met with a user whose research group potentially used geodatabases more fully. Her response inflated and deflated my mood at the same time. It turned out that they were not even using any enterprise provided database facilities, determining that they were not performant. Instead, the limited amount of geodatabase activity they undertook used a shared file geodatabase structure, from which they were publishing WMS offerings via ArcGIS Server. I left the meeting energised by the possibility that the road was open to replacing (rather than tweaking) ArcSDE and ArcGIS Server with PostGIS and Geoserver, but a bit concerned that a long road lay ahead to convince users to take advantage of shared SDI components.

Seeing an open road, and a challenge, I dug around to see if there is a way to make this whole enterprise SDI lark a non-zero sum game. ZigGis seems to be the best (and good)  candidate to get ArcGIS clients to access PostGIS directly. This sounded really positive – the existence of a sweet spot, where everyone could be happy! What is more, it looks like ZigGIS is going Open Source again, potentially reducing the licensing overhead against our limited budget. Alas, we really need ZigGIS 3 – the sweet spot receded with the realisation that ZigGIS would not currently be useful to Arc* users primarily since it does not have ArcCatalog functionality . So, you may ask, what about funding the ZigGIS project in order to speed up its work tords a 3.0 release?  Good Point indeed! This is going to be fun trying to build up a business case for our organisation to fund development, when all the IT services want is risk reduction and guarantees. Which leads me to another reason why I ache so much today – a supported PostGIS/Geoserver/Desktop Client stack, so coveted by the IT minions, would actually cost a similar amount to an ESRI stack. Now, I can still think of a lot of reasons why such a stack offers more value (read replication, flexibility, wide usage of standards, etc), but I wonder to what extent this sweet spot, winners all around scenario will seem compelling enough to our moneybags people…

You may have heard this:

“There we were, two against two thousand – boy, did we take those two guys out!”

I feel like one of the two guys, lined up against a all sorts of obstacles (technical, organisational, lack of interest, financial, timing) before there is any view of what seems a sweet spot.

Ah well, nothing ventured and all that…



1. Tweets that mention The ache of almost being in the sweet spot « SouthernTip -- Topsy.com - September 15, 2010

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sean Gillies, N.. N. said: The ache of almost being in the sweet spot « SouthernTip – In the middle of this situation, the organisation is tryi… http://ow.ly/190zFW […]

2. Nicklas Avén - September 15, 2010

Very good post.
ESRI protective politic should lead many to move from ArcServer in the long run. Interesting that you analysed the actual use of versioning and so on. My experience of ArcGIS is waiting for the applications to start, then searching for the right tool in the toolbox. When tool is found I get a message that I don’t have the right license to use it. Few things are more frustrating.

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