GEOG 865
Cloud and Server GIS

Software as a service (SaaS) with mapping and GIS

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In Lesson 1 you learned about the software as a service (SaaS) model of cloud computing. With SaaS, the end user doesn’t have to install, configure, or code anything: the software is accessed directly from the cloud, usually through a web browser. The cloud hardware itself is maintained or leased by the service provider, with all the details of the back end architecture hidden from the end user. In Lesson 1 you used Google Fusion Tables as an example of SaaS. Others include all Google Docs, Gmail, and the ArcGIS.com map viewer that you used in the previous lessons.

Although you may be accustomed to using free SaaS such as online e-mail, there is also much SaaS that is sold through upfront or metered fees. In fact, the free SaaS that you encounter is usually a gateway to more services that are available on a subscription basis. For example, you’ve already seen a little bit about how the ArcGIS.com map viewer is free to use, but you’ve also seen that Esri has a for-purchase credit system used for other services (which you’ll learn about in a later lesson). In a similar fashion, Mapbox offers a free tier of services but requires a subscription for certain volumes or usages.

SaaS is gaining popularity in the GIS industry because it saves people the hassle of installing and administering complex software. This is a boon for industries that want to use maps and spatial processing, but may not have the hardware or personnel to fully deploy a GIS onsite. It also allows them to give GIS a trial or pilot run for a relatively low cost and setup effort.

Because SaaS runs in a web page and needs to be accessible on many devices, its design is also usually streamlined compared to more complex desktop GIS software interfaces. SaaS generally lowers the bar for getting started with GIS. It is an excellent way for beginners to learn GIS, mapping, and design techniques, although it should be kept in mind that the features offered by SaaS may be limited compared to locally installed software.

SaaS is also an attractive way to do GIS because certain elements of functionality can be purchased on an as-needed basis. For example, companies who need to host just one or two spatial datasets as web services can do so without having to spend lots of money upfront on their own GIS server. Organizations that use GIS SaaS should assess the cost of services on a periodic basis. If a company needs to host many datasets and perform constant data processing or geocomputation operations, the cost of SaaS may actually exceed the cost for an in-house GIS server. In other words, although SaaS is convenient, it may not always be the most economical option.

This lesson begins a series on SaaS GIS offerings. We’ll first learn about Mapbox and its services for web map design and delivery. Then we’ll look at services from Carto, which are focused primarily on thematic mapping and analysis. Finally, we’ll spend two lessons looking at ArcGIS Online, covering its web map assembly tools in more depth and exploring its geoprocessing services.