Scott Morehouse was involved in the early development of GIS (geographic information system) in the Harvard Graphics Lab and is now director of software development for Esri. He was responsible for the initial design and architecture of Esri's ARC product.

In this interview, we discuss:

  • How the cloud is enabling more collaboration around GIS data
  • The cost and complexity in setting up on-site GIS solutions, vs. using cloud based or on-demand solutions
  • The opportunity for "mashups" where users combine their on-site data with cloud-based data
  • Opportunities created by Azure virtual machines and database instances

Robert Duffner: To get us started, could you please take a moment to introduce yourself and tell us about your role at Esri?

Scott Morehouse: I direct the software and product development activities of Esri. I've been involved in building information systems for working with maps and geographic data for 25 or 30 years. We built systems for workstation and client/server environments, then we built web-based systems, and now we're building systems that leverage cloud services and infrastructure.

My background is in geography and software engineering. We're heavily involved in applying the appropriate computing technology and leveraging general-purpose computing infrastructure to serve our users, who work with maps and geographic information.

Robert: You've been involved in GIS for quite some time, going back to the Harvard Graphics Lab. How have you seen the field change over the decades, and where do you see it going?

Scott: It's interesting to see the technological changes, but the fundamentals actually are quite the same, in terms of bringing geographic information to life in support of real users, real decision-making processes, and real work flows.

One thing that has especially become easier with modern technology is building collaborative systems and making information available to everyone in an organization, rather than having it locked up in departmental systems or information silos. Using web technologies and mobile device styles of system building has made it a lot easier to allow people in a given community to participate in implementation of the information.

Robert: You've talked about the underpinnings moving from client/server to a web-based modality, and now leveraging cloud computing. How do you see cloud providing benefits for GIS?

Scott: There are a number of different dimensions that make cloud interesting to us and our users. First is the simple fact that information systems have been moving from a client/server pattern to a web-centered pattern. By that I mean that even intranet or internal systems within an organization are being built around a web programming pattern and around a web style of user interactions.

Building a web-style information system implies an easy-to-use, browser-based modality that is stateless and uses a certain programming pattern. It implies making the information available to devices like iPhones and tablets as well as to work stations. It implies a certain style of documentation and leveraging a community of people for a more collaborative environment.

People are very interested in building applications that work that way, because that's the highest style of technology that they're used to. Nobody works with command prompts anymore except for system administrators and developers.

Another trend is the complexity of building and managing a computing infrastructure for an organization or even for yourself. It's really a difficult process to create the right infrastructure for hard drives, CPU cores, network connectivity, security, software patches, and so forth. So the notion of being able to grant or tie into a hosted infrastructure rather than having to build and maintain your own is very attractive to our users. They just want to turn a switch and get a new server that they can deploy a workload to.

A third thing is the ability to combine and mash up functionality and information that comes from other places. Users like to be able to take our case maps and data that others have created, and use them together in their own applications.

Robert: With SaaS applications, you want multi-tenancy and for each customer's data set to be completely isolated. That's sometimes true with GIS, but at other times you want to share and use community data. How does the cloud facilitate that?

Scott: The cloud facilitates the sharing of information in a couple of ways. One is that web-style system architecture makes information accessible through services. The notion that information is accessible through RESTful services or web-style interfaces really reduces the problems of getting at information. You're not having to ETL data from one database to another or these types of things.

In that context, you have to be clear as to what information is private, what information is semi-private, and what information is public. I think there's an implication that if information is easily accessible through a web-style interface, it also has to be public information. That's not necessarily the case, and we can put security around information in that context.

I think the question of whether a system is based on a multi-tenant architecture or whether it's based on having actual instances per user is kind of a fine point of implementation.

SQL Azure is multi-tenant, but there are individual database instances within that. Some people can own and control their own database container, but the system is optimized in such a way that it scales and has other attributes that multi-tenant applications give you. We see a combination of services that are implemented in a multi-tenant style and applications that are instance-per-organization style.

In the context of SharePoint, for example, there's a role for both a multi-tenant approach, for sharing documents and collaborating on them, as well as for allowing people to rent their own SharePoint instance in a hosted or cloud environment.

Robert: You've also talked about the cloud lowering the barriers for people to utilize GIS because they don't have to stand up servers to have GIS capabilities. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Scott: The main barrier for people to get into this web style of system building with geographic information is setting up and managing servers. The cloud makes that easier in a couple of ways. First, people can stand up and manage their traditional enterprise-type servers and services using the cloud as a hosting environment, or a virtual data center for their servers, if you will.

It also allows us to create new services that are lighter weight, leveraging the scalability of frameworks like Azure. So people can basically get going with information managed and delivered through services accessible from web clients a lot easier than if they had to buy their own hardware and connect it to the Internet.

Robert: Esri itself has a bit of a hybrid model, where you host your own servers but you also use Amazon and Windows Azure. Can you talk a little bit about your architecture and how you decide what to keep in house and what to host in the cloud?

Scott: Our fundamental architecture is web-centric, meaning that we've been working to expose maps and geographic information through open, web-accessible interfaces, primarily REST and JSON, but also SOAP and some other types. We've engineered our front end as clients to these services, so this web-centric system architecture can be deployed within an enterprise entirely, but it's also well suited to running on the Internet. It's also well suited to having elements of it, namely some of these services, actually hosted in a cloud infrastructure.

Since everything is a service, it really doesn't matter whether the service is running on physical hardware that's connected to your LAN or on virtual hardware that's physically located in an Amazon or Azure data center. We just make practical decisions about which aspects of the system make sense to run in our customer's data center, which services should run in the Azure cloud environment, and which ones should run in Amazon's cloud. We look at requirements such as what functionality is most efficiently implemented in which infrastructure and which environments meet the security and access requirements.

Robert: How do you see other enterprises using hybrid models where they may keep a large number of servers and applications on site for the foreseeable future, but consume cloud services like those that Esri provides?

Scott: It's not necessarily the case that to take advantage of cloud computing, you need to rewrite or move all of your applications from an enterprise-centric architecture to a cloud-centric architecture. It's certainly possible to build on-premises enterprise applications that combine information coming from your enterprise systems with data feeds, information, and functionality that are coming through a subscription to a cloud service.

We're seeing lots of mash up patterns where people combine geographic information from our hosted services with their enterprise information and even build their enterprise systems using on-premises web sites or thick-client applications.

Robert: I think a lot of companies with products they've traditionally sold as on-premises offerings see the cloud as something of a threat, but Esri has really embraced the cloud and pivoted to this technology. What advice do you have for other companies or organizations that have on-premises solutions about adopting the cloud?

Scott: Every organization is different, and we've really just focused on recognizing that this new pattern of building systems that leverage browsers and mobile devices is a pattern of systems that people expect. They want to get at their corporate reports or their geographic information from their iPhone as easily as they can get to their music from their iPhone.

There's an opportunity there to grow and support that style of solution as well as more traditional desktop computing. Amazon and Microsoft have both worked hard to make it relatively simple to migrate applications from a traditional server computing environment to a hosted computing environment.

In particular, the latest release of Azure has virtual machines and other capabilities that work both on premises in private clouds as well as off-premises in hosted ones. I don't see cloud-based applications completely replacing on-premises based ones, but I see the two complementing one another, and I see a lot of cases where you can design a system that will work well in both environments.

Robert: Key software providers like Esri providing services in the cloud definitely provides an opportunity that wasn't there before, in terms of enabling customers to co-locate, for lack of a better term, their software with your software in the same cloud. What are your thoughts on that?

Scott: People can build systems that take advantage of the cohesion of software components if they share a common cloud infrastructure and common application fabric. We are certainly exposing aspects of our system that allow people to take advantage of that, for example, building web roles that work with our worker roles and our data services, tying them into a common application fabric.

Another interesting thing about this sort of web-centric architecture is that, if it's truly service-based, it is to some extent agnostic as to where the services are coming from, and that's a good thing. We don't want to have to replicate or copy the same information and functionality across to six different ways of storing and managing blobs in a web-addressable way.

We can definitely have applications that mash things up between Windows enterprise architecture and Azure cloud architecture, as well as other hosted environments like Rackspace and other virtual environments like Amazon. You can build in a degree of system cohesion, and it's not necessary to rewrite everything so that it runs entirely inside of Azure, Amazon, or any of the others.

Robert: I came across a paper for the 1997 Esri User Conference titled "Democratizing GIS: Are We There Yet?" Where do you think we are on the path of democratizing GIS?

Scott: A lot of the technical challenges have been overcome. The challenges now are about how to create a lot of great content and communities that can collaborate around it.

Robert: How would you characterize the value of platform as a service, as opposed to infrastructure as a service?

Scott: I think the whole distinction between platform as a service and infrastructure as a service is a false one that creates a lot of confusion. I prefer to think in terms of "system as a service." To build a system, you use the appropriate technology, whether it's database technology or client technology. When people have big debates about whether the business logic should live in the database tier or the middle tier of a three-tier architecture, the real answer is that it should live where it's best suited, and where you can build and maintain a system most appropriately.

I really like what's been going on with this latest release of Azure, because from a practical standpoint, we're actually blurring that distinction. The religious people that refuse to let Azure be platform as a service have relented and allowed us to have virtual machines and allowed us to have database instances with SQL Azure.

That's really opened up a lot of opportunities for moving more conventionally architected systems to the cloud and then adding functionality that might leverage the fabric or platform-as-a-service capabilities. I look at Azure and Amazon not as differences of kind but as differences of quality. Both allow you to build cloud-based systems or system as a service, and you can use both to do tier services, build user experiences, or even have databases.

What's different, really, is the quality of the relational data store, the quality of the runtime environment for hosted app instances as Web roles, and how easy it is to build and manage a system as a service in one or the other.

Robert: Thanks, Scott. I really appreciate your insights.

Scott: Thank you.