Web based GIS, Past and Present

We have directly or indirectly been involved in Web based GIS for quite a few years now, and it is quite interesting how the approach has changed over time. The early days saw the reliance on client based plugins and has slowly progressed to no reliance on client side plugins and virtually no reliance on server side solutions.

The Past

My first attempt at a webGIS was a custom built solution rendering maps in SVG which essentially served as a stepping stone until a reliable commercial product became available. I am sure there are other similar custom solutions that were used by all in those days! I would say the first reliable commercial product was Autodesk Mapguide (which now has an open source version). Back then, between 1998 and 2000, the end user required the mapguide plugin. This was not ideal, but still did the job efficiently and relatively fast. We were always on the look out for an easy to use reliable solution that did not require plugins. Being ESRI Arcview users, we kept an eye on ArcIMS, but it too had a plugin requirement, and was therefore excluded. the next commercial product to catch my attention was Mapinfo MapXtreme. I forget the version, but it came with two development options; MapXtreme with Hahtsite or MapXtreme for ASP. The Hahtsite version produced an output using a Java applet, while the ASP version produced a clickable imagemap. The Java applet was not a serious concern as by this stage (2001) most users were either running the Sun JRE or the Microsoft Java Engine. The webmaps produced by MapXtreme were fast and highly configurable,exposing developers to everything available in the the MapX toolbox. Others may disagree with me, but I think that MapXtreme at that time was the premier solution for webmapping. The asp version was even faster with the advantage of having no reliance on a java applet. With some javascript scripting map navigation tools could be easily incorporated into a final solution, providing a user friendly solution for end users. MapXtreme served us well for at least two years, that is, until it came time to upgrade to the next version......

The Growth

In the early 2000's there was a phenomenal growth in webmapping technologies, so when it came time to upgrade our MapXtreme license in 2003 we did a bit of market research. By this time ARCIMS had finally got rid of their restrictive plugin, and the next version of MapXtreme boasted a host of new features. The problem with both of these solutions was price...They were (and still are) extremely expensive, so we started looking at cheaper alternatives. the other problem with these two (and Mapguide) was that you could not easily deploy mapping functionality in existing applications without buying a license for each server the application was´┐Ż deployed on (again, this is still a major problem with these). Also at this time, there were some interesting looking opensource solutions - MapServer was now established as well us some other options such as GeoTools. We also looked at cost effective commercial products. After a detailed analysis we ended up using AspMap 1.0 from VDS technolgies. They offered a asp and asp.net solution with a unlimited server license at a very reasonable cost. In addition to this, aspmap included javascript navigation tools out of the box, support for shapefiles, tab files, ECW and tiff, and rendered maps extremely fast. Aspmap served us extremely well for the next 4 years, and we stuck with it through two major releases.

The Present

Google Earth, Virtual Earth and especially the Google API caused a major shift in how users interact with and use web maps. With the release of the Google Maps API, suddenly ordinary web developers were able to easily integrate maps into their websites with no server side requirements and at absolutely no cost at all (ignoring the commercial license for now). Why would someone go and buy expensive products when they could get it for free?. As with anything, the more reliant you got on a product the more blinkered your approach becomes. Roundabout the same time I was getting itchy feet at my previous company and started to look for a way out, as well as investigating other alternatives. Being a predominantly Microsoft focused company, the first option we stumbled upon was the excellent Sharpmap, an open source server side solution with integrated Ajax functionality. Clearly the Google solutions were rubbing off on others!. In 2007, with the birth of our new company we immediately set out in developing solutions using the Sharpmap API. Being a server side solution the problem of portability still lingered at the back of my mind. To host web maps on other servers required that server to have access to the data and the webmap dll's. Google maps was never really an option because of the cost of licensing it to use in a commercial application, so again we did some more research into other alternatives. Midway through 2007 we stumbled upon OpenLayers, an open source javascript based API. Web developers could now easily integrate web maps into any open or commercial application with no server side requirements for the generation and display of data. The underlying philosophy of OpenLayers is that it connects to and displays data using existing Web Map Services (OGC WMS). Developers do not need to worry about sourcing, storing and managing spatial data. Fortunately, there are currently a plethora of freely available WMS servers providing access to detailed and accurate vector and raster data (including the ability to display Google and virtual Earth maps). Through an active and helpful mailing list, users can have a user friendly solution up in no time at all. In addition to simply displaying data, the OpenLayers API provides additional navigation tools as well as the ability to display and edit point and vector data. Since it is javascript based customisation possibilities are endless.

Unfortunately, in South Africa, there are limited WMS servers available. I am confident that this will change over time, but, to overcome this in the interim, as GIS consultants, we are required to setup our own services using server side software. Fortunately there are lots of open source and reliable solutions to do just that. the most widely used solutions are; Sharpmap, MapServer, and GeoServer. All three of these options are open source and, with the exception of Sharpmap, can be run on Windows or Linux. Add Tilecache to the equation and you have a truly managed and fast solution.

Where to From Now?

The big question is, where do the big commercial products fit in? Personally, I think unless there is a major shift in thinking from these big corporate's, they will notice a marked drop in sales going forward. Mapguide has already taken the bull by the horns by going open source, and ESRI does not sponsor the FOSS4G conferences for the good of the GIS community! They are keeping an eye on things! Big corporate's needing to manage large cadastral datasets over the web may still have a requirement for using ArcIMS or MapXtreme, but then again isn't that what ArcGIS or Mapinfo are for?

As for Open Source GIS and South Africa, things could not look better at the moment. South Africa is the host country for the FOSS4G conference, and we can already show the rest of the world how we are making commercial success purely using open source products. I am by now means an Open Source fanatic, I still run windows and MS office..our mail is still hosted on exchange and our server is still Windows Server with IIS...but, I am definitely finding that in the GIS world open source products are noticeably leaping ahead of equivalent commercial products, wether it is web GIS or desktop based analysis using Postgres with the PostGIS plugin! to all involved I would say keep at it, you are doing the GIS community a favour.

for an example of Openlayers in use, have a look at our Openlayers based site - Mapexchange (ignoring our restricted bandwidth in South Africa!).