Esri UK and open systems

23rd December 2013

What is an open system?

In the world of Government IT we often make the mistake of thinking open means free and I include myself in that. In fact, open normally means interoperable and accessible. The licence for the actual software may or may not be free.

An open system will combine one or more of the following elements:

Open standards common specifications allowing different systems to interoperate, adhered to by open-source and commercial software developers

Open-source software source code which developers can access, adapt and distribute without having to pay a licence agreement. Vendors often build commercial models (i.e. paid-for) around this code by providing support and implementation services.

Open data data in a format that can be easily accessed and consumed by open standards-based systems, without charge.

Commercial (COTS) software – source code available under commercial licence, often engineered to open standards.

Many organisations building an open system start by thinking they need to choose between commercial software and open-source software. This is incorrect. Commercial software can still be compatible with open standards, making it ‘open’ and able to easily share data with other systems and other people.

The UK Government Service Design Manual is an excellent resource for helping you understand how to choose technology. It explains how to focus on capabilities rather than implementations. It also reinforces the idea of encouraging or enforcing open-standards to avoid technology lock-in – you can then change your mind in the future!

What about Esri and Esri UK?

Esri Inc. and Esri UK are commercial companies which exist to deliver the benefits of a geographic approach to our customers. We supply geospatial software and services in a commercial marketplace with a business model that is clear and sustainable. The company is debt-free and privately-owned which has allowed us to focus on GIS. This in-turn has allowed us to develop a comprehensive open standards-based enterprise geospatial software stack and a large pool of skilled GI people.

The core software components of the ArcGIS platform are COTS and these deliver the “heavy lifting”. This is where our IPR is and where we add most value to an organisation – our years of knowledge of spatial technology and our experience of engineering enterprise-class GIS.

But alongside this Esri have made applications and software components for interacting with the ArcGIS platform available either as open-source software or sometimes as freeware. This includes web and mobile applications, APIs such as our latest JavaScript framework for Leaflet, and catalogues, portals, GI toolkits and so on. The open-source components are typically managed through our GitHub site, letting us be very engaged with the open-source community. Why do we do this? Well, we think it supports the overall growth of the GI industry, it helps build an ecosystem around the Esri platform and ultimately it helps organisations make better environmental, social and business decisions based on geographic evidence.

Our customers also use clients that Esri have not written or collaborated on, and these may by COTS (an application from another vendor) or open-source (such as one built using OpenLayers, which works very well on top of an Esri core).

This hybrid approach capsizes the typical open-source licence model of having an open-source core system with bespoke developments or licensed products being used in the application tier. Instead many of our UK customers pay a modest and limited amount for the core ArcGIS components and then deploy the free and open-source components in an unbounded fashion.  As an example of this model, take a look at SpatialNI. This forms the linchpin of Northern Ireland’s INSPIRE initiative. This is built using the Esri GeoPortal Server (open-source) and the ArcGIS Viewer for Flex (open-source) used in combination with ArcGIS for Server and ArcGIS for INSPIRE (both COTS).

We should also remember that Esri customers often build open ArcGIS systems on top of software from open-source projects – for example running their Geodatabase on PostgreSQL, their ArcGIS Server on Linux and using Apache Tomcat as their Web Server.

How does this work within the framework for Government projects?

For organisations with particularly unusual business requirements, open-source software can provide a flexible platform for developing highly bespoke solutions. They do not need to wait for a commercial software vendor to develop the functionality they need, but can instead build it themselves, moulding a solution from a number of open-source software projects to meet their exact requirements. Do not assume your organisation’s requirements must be unique though. You can, for example, buy Esri products and services directly from G-Cloud even if you need something more than a piece of commodity software.

The Government Service Design Manual has some excellent guidance on how to consider the total cost of ownership of an open system – for example including bespoke development, people, training, software licensing, support and exit costs. A system or service is rarely free even if the software licence is free – there is a cost associated with doing anything. That cost is made up of various elements, and human resources and software are the two most pertinent in this context. What changes between open-source and COTS is the balance between the two.

Open standards are more important – so how open is the ArcGIS platform?

Esri is hugely supportive of open standards. In the GI world, many of our most important standards are set by the Open GeoSpatial Consortium (OGC) and ArcGIS has excellent compliance with these, a full list can be found here. For our customers it is a huge benefit to be able to enable WMS, WFS and WCS services simply by checking a box. We are also very supportive of the European INSPIRE initiative and provide products and services to contribute to its success.

Esri is compatible with the ISO TC/211 series and supports the widest range of databases in the industry. All interfaces to ArcGIS are also based on open standards and accompanied by fully documented and publically available Application Programming Interfaces (APIs).