Geospatial Investment Comes in Many Forms

A look at the cost and benefits of open source and proprietary GIS, and which one is best for you.

By Nicholas Duggan

For many years, there has been an underground fighting of factions between the open source and proprietary GIS providers. If you run an Esri system, you are told that you are wasting money and you can do it all free. If you run everything on QGIS, you are asked how you can do your job properly. In my decades in the industry, I have worked with developers from Esri, CADCorp, QGIS, MapInfo, Mapbox, Leaflet, OpenLayers, Geoserver and may have even had a chat with a few important people at some other geospatial companies, but there is one underlying theme — they all have a cost. The intention of this piece is to discuss that cost.

At the beginning of my career, I was given Esri licenses for all the different tools and without knowing it, I was spoiled and wouldn’t even use half of the tools I had at my disposal. There must have been nearly £20,000 ($27,562) of tools that were unused because, at that stage in my career, I was just interested in churning maps out and getting paid each month. It wasn’t until a few years later, when there was talk of redundancy in the business while looking into what we were doing with the GIS, that I started talking with the company directors about cutting some of the cost.

As an exercise in cost saving across the business (we had a team of around 10 GIS users), we looked at moving some of the licenses to a relatively new concept, open source GIS and the rather shiny QGIS 1.8. On the face of it, QGIS seemed to be the answer to all our GIS issues; not only was it free but it also did much of the simple editing and map production work. The only difference was that we had to get rid of our “safety net” of support and help that we got when the software failed. I am glad to report that the company didn’t burn to the ground or fail in any delivery.

Open Source doesn’t mean compromising style or visual impact

In the years that followed, I built Geoserver systems, set up ArcGIS Enterprise systems, even built a Boundless OpenGeo system, whatever happened to that? All with a hidden agenda of finding out whether paying for the system was worth it and understanding the cost of open source.

Open isn’t free

First of all, open isn’t free. Yes, I said it and it is now out there. Open source is built by people with a passion who want to create something amazing and let others use it. But surely there must be some recompense for those hours creating this free tool. Some payment comes from donations and other payment comes from users paying for certain tools; the only caveat is that they don’t get to own and silo the tool away — it must be available to all. An example of this is the option to save grouped layers in QGIS. Did you know that it was created due to a request that I made? Did you know that it cost me a ukulele? Because my GIS team was working on large information, they needed to be able to save large groups of layers, which at that time wasn’t possible. So, I reached out to one of the developers and they offered to do it. Since it would have taken a bit of their free time, they wanted a payment.

There are many tools in QGIS like this, paid for by users or as part of a “go fund me” that has propelled it into what it is today. It is true, you can go and use it free from the download on the QGIS website, but if you are using it commercially and making profit from it, don’t you owe something back as a thank you?

Many people will learn Esri software at school or university where there are free licenses for schools, so making a move to QGIS and its python driven tools is a little bit of a learning curve; you can use the software out of the box but there aren’t the tools in the same place with the same control which you learn in Esri. This means there is a bit more of a time investment as you begin your journey.

An image from Google Trends showing interest for Esri (Red) and QGIS (Blue) over time

If you are reading this and are about to undertake a commitment to GIS, don’t be afraid of cost. There is so much value to be gained from geospatial information, though you must do your homework. Talk with the CTO on the company’s technical strategy, talk with the CEO on where the company is going in the next few years, the kind of business which the GIS needs to support and then create a business case for it

Investing in a platform

From a business perspective, you could say that to ensure business continuity, there is risk to delivery from the need for training and potential investment for the creation of tools (if they don’t exist). There is no online platform out of the box, so there is investment required to either have it built or consume the time for development if sharing information with end users and other areas of business. In my experience, although views towards open source have changed, it is still difficult to get buy-in from the technical and IT side of business as there is some lack of trust about where it isn’t supported (IT worry they have no one to talk to when it goes wrong).

The cost of proprietary platforms

For proprietary systems like Esri, SuperMap, MapInfo or CADCorp, you pay a fee for the software and then an ongoing annual fee for support, updates and, in some cases, free training. Depending on the amount of tools and the online capability, you could be paying tens of thousands, which on the face of it seems a lot of money, but to build your own similar solution could cost you ten times the amount.

Systems like Esri provide a fully operational 3D environment out of the box that also connects to their Cloud system called “ArcGIS Online” (users call it AGOL). This allows uploading and sharing of data and maps directly from the mapping software or in the Cloud environment on its own. There are lots of tools (if you choose to pay for them) and the system rarely fails. It is very stable, even when stacking up flowcharts of processes (called modeler).

Esri has been selling GIS for over 50 years and provides everything you need to do your work. There is online training, technical support and there is even a free annual conference in most countries where you can sit and chat with their experts about your issues and how to resolve them. Furthermore, there is even an ideas area where users vote for features they want put in the next release.

Esri actively works to save the planet. The above map shows the reserve that Esri Founders Jack and Laura Dangermond bought and gave to the Nature Conservancy

From a business perspective it is a big investment in an area of business which commonly just produces some maps for reports. On the face of it, the cost is simply not justifiable unless it is rolled into other areas of business or you are looking to provide a web mapping system, in which case it is a large cost saving as it removes the overhead of developers, designers and UX/UI. IT and the technical side of businesses like Esri provide technical support — people to help with installation; and if you are looking to build an Enterprise GIS, they will send their staff out to design it with you.

Making the right investment

There is no getting away from it. You either consume the financial cost upfront and use a proprietary system or you make a long-term financial investment in open source which may not give you quick returns but can grow with the company. In my experience, the costs aren’t too different between using either system once you have added the cost for PostGIS on AWS, websites and storage in with QGIS to do some public facing web mapping compared to the out of the box capability with Esri. The only benefit is that you have more flexibility and ownership; some may argue that there is a loss of intellectual property (IP) when building a proprietary system, though IP and software is a quagmire no matter which system you use.

If you are reading this and are about to undertake a commitment to GIS, don’t be afraid of cost. There is so much value to be gained from geospatial information, though you must do your homework. Talk with the CTO on the company’s technical strategy, talk with the CEO on where the company is going in the next few years, the kind of business which the GIS needs to support and then create a business case for it. Own the journey and get others to buy into it too. You may find that there is an architectural principle or business vision which has open source at the core of the business which will allow you to architect an open system with lots of training and you may even suggest employing a developer or an open-source support company like Astun Technology. You may alternatively find that there is a principle about using “out of the box” or supported systems and look towards a proprietary system.

No matter which you choose, if properly planned, it will be right for you, will empower your company and show you great financial returns. Just don’t get caught up in all the hype about one being better than the other or getting drawn in by the cost at face value. Please plan and write out all the costs for what you need before jumping into a solution that you like but don’t really need.

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