Today’s forecast is 100% chance of clouds — Cloud computing.

Technological advances and market forces have aligned to create a computing “technological inflection point,” says Tom Conrad, Executive Vice President, Pandor Media Inc. (Feb 2012, Bloomberg).  The Gartner Group pronounced, “The reign of the personal computer as the sole corporate access device is coming to a close, and by 2014, the personal Cloud will replace the personal computer at the center of users’ digital lives.”  It can be difficult to determine marketing hyperbole from a true “game-changer”—remember the network computer?  Looking back to another computing “technological inflection point” can help provide clarity.

In August 1995, Microsoft released Windows 95 setting the stage for the rapid rise of Windows and the personal computer.  Neil McDonald, a Gartner Analyst, said, “it was a quantum leap in … technological capability and stability.”  Windows 95 supported 32-bit architecture, came pre-loaded on personal computers, supported development environments like Visual Basic, and was easy to network.  By 2001, Windows was installed on most of the personal computers around the world, establishing a broad market in which companies could create and market viable software solutions, like Cityworks.

The combination of a broadly-adopted operating system, rapidly falling prices for increasingly more powerful computing hardware pre-shipped with a suite of desirable applications, and support for development environments like Visual Basic, formed a “technological inflection point” that changed the computing landscape.

With Cloud computing, we see market-altering technology.   New types of software companies have emerged—Salesforce and Netsuite are the most prominent examples.  For Cityworks users, we see Esri’s major ArcGIS Online initiative and the Web Map.

Software Innovation Associated with Cloud Computing
For several years, the market has been shifting to web-based solutions connected to wireless networks.  This is already evident in how we access email from a smartphone, tablet, or personal computer.  Desktop applications still have a place, but users are increasingly supplementing the desktop with the flexibility of browser- and web-based applications.
What other market and technology innovations are associated with Cloud computing?

Tech-Savvy Users
Perhaps the biggest driver is that users throughout an organization are increasingly comfortable with technology.  Nearly everyone owns a smartphone, which is a mobile computing platform.  They perform computational tasks daily such as finding directions to their favorite restaurant or ordering movie tickets.  Familiarity with technology has empowered users and raised expectations.  It has been called the “democratization of technology” (Carl Bass, CEO, Autodesk) because everyone can access the same technology easily.

Device Flexibility
Users desire device independence and flexibility for all their software solutions.  Computing anywhere, at any time, using the device at hand is the expectation dominating the market.  “Wireless penetration in the US is 105 percent when including mobile devices like tablet computers, said Bob Roche, a statistician with CTIA, a wireless-industry trade group” (April 2012, Bloomberg).

Lower Cost and More Power  
Not surprisingly, lower cost and greater power are key factors that propelled Windows and the personal computer in the late 1990s.  Today, Cloud computing is particularly well-suited to deliver sophisticated and powerful applications at a lower cost.

HTML 5 and other Web Development Frameworks
There is a rapid increase in applications designed and created using HTML 5 and other web development frameworks.  Some have voiced concerns that HTML 5 is a lowest-common denominator approach for development, but it is this very characteristic that is a virtue for supporting a broad range of devices.  Comparing Silverlight and HTML 5, even Microsoft has acknowledged “our strategy has shifted,” (Mary-Jo Foley, ZDNET).  Microsoft has positioned Silverlight as a development framework “enabling scenarios that HTML doesn’t cover” (Daniel Jebaraj, InfoQ).  The buzz surrounding HTML 5 and other web development frameworks is a barometer forecasting change.

Virtualization in computing means creating a virtual or simulated version of a computing environment.  Software installed on a virtual server with Windows Server 2008 behaves the same as if it were actually installed on a physical server.  Microsoft Server 8 (currently in beta) can be installed on the same server hardware.  This is called “parallelism.”  Multiple virtual environments running in parallel on the same hardware reduces overall costs.  Also, virtualization frees an application from specific hardware, providing a path forward for current computing environments and maintaining a computing environment for legacy applications.

Computer access was once confined to the office.  Wireless networks and mobile devices are providing the benefits of computing power on demand.   Anywhere, anytime computing is transforming how we work.  Organizations desire the benefits of wherever and whenever collaboration with their staff to increase productivity, reduce travel costs, and improve customer service.

Cityworks-specific Cloud Technological Inflection Point Drivers
For Cityworks, there are additional factors driving the Cloud technological inflection point.

Desire to Leverage Investment in Esri GIS
For local governments, Esri technology is the choice to inventory and catalog infrastructure and other assets.  They desire to leverage and maximize their investment by using GIS for mission critical functions such as asset management, and for good reason. “If a common system is created in which information can be shared among different relevant organizations, the investment will come back four times,” (Elaine Sylvia, “Cost Benefit Analysis for GIS”).

ArcGIS 10.1
Esri ArcGIS 10.1 is a major release in support of Cloud architecture.  It introduces the Web Map as a standard way to manage and interact with resources (e.g. GIS data) from ArcGIS Online or from ArcGIS Server via an on-premise server.  GIS data is published as a “REST”service (Representational State Transfer service).  ArcGIS 10.1-supported REST services include feature, map, image, geocode, geometry, and geoprocessing.

Cityworks Web App and Resources
The Cityworks Web App is made up of two primary components, the Cityworks web forms and the Web Map.  The Cityworks Web App is a “client” and can initiate a data request from available resources residing on servers such as ArcGIS Server and ArcGIS Online.  The request is made (or called) to an ArcGIS-supported REST service using a URL referenced to a resource.  ArcGIS Online or Server processes the request and returns a “representational state” or snapshot of the appropriate data to the Web Map used by the Cityworks Web App.

cloud gis web mapping

Cityworks Asset Management and the Feature Service
For the Cityworks Asset Management and the Cloud architecture, the feature service is the glue that holds everything together.  For most local governments, the Esri geodatabase is the most up-to-date source of an organization’s infrastructure assets.  These are “published” as a feature service that adheres to the parameters and format specifications of the Web Map.  Conceptually, the feature service can be viewed as containing the different infrastructure layers, such as water mains, sewer mains, streets, sidewalks, trees, etc.

Using a URL, the Cityworks Web App makes a request to the feature service. Rather than sending the entire geodatabase or accessing the geodatabase directly, ArcGIS creates a representation state (or snapshot) of the GIS data and transfers it to Web Map using JSON, HTML, or XML, including geometry, attributes, symbology, and other information. With the request made and the data provided, the Web Map references the URL.

With the GIS data in the Web Map container, a user can further interrogate the data by individual layer, control visibility, alter symbology, and limit access and edit privileges to the item level. If permissions allow, GIS data can be updated and sent back to the feature service to update the geodatabase. Users can even overlay other location data residing in non-GIS file formats such as Excel. And all of this without the need to ask GIS/IT for help. In essence, the Web Map makes a user’s experience with the feature service much more flexible, maximizing an organization’s investment in their GIS to help reach their asset management goals.

The forecast is right: there are and will continue to be a lot of Clouds. The world is moving to the cloud and some major software companies are not completely in sync with that, remarked a Piper Jaffray analyst in response to a 2% slide in a major software company’s revenue. Cloud computing is growing because it is an efficient means for accessing computing resources. Azteca Systems is committed to assuring that Cityworks is in sync with cloud computing and particularly with Esri cloud computing.

Benefits of Cloud Computing

Here are the commonly listed benefits of cloud computing:

Reduced costs. Pay for what you use. Lower upfront outlays. Access to skilled and experienced IT expertise for server, network, and software management. Easier to implement and maintain. No need to plan and budget for software and hardware updates.

Scalability and flexibility. You can scale your computing needs seamlessly and easily to quickly add more resources.

Remote access. Staff can access and update information wherever they are, rather than having to run back to the office.

Disaster relief. With your data stored off-site in secure and redundant data centers, if there are natural disaster events such as floods, severe storms, or earthquakes, or even non-natural disaster events such as a construction worker cutting the power lines, you have the assurance that your data is safe and accessible as soon as you re-establish an internet connection.

Response time. In most cases, network response times perform as well as (and often even better than) standard in-house computing systems. The reasons are varied, but generally the overall hardware and network management is optimized.

Even playing field. Cloud computing allows mid-sized and smaller, local-government organizations to effectively utilize the same software tools used by larger organizations.

Costs versus benefits are key factors in any decision regarding adopting new technology. What are the benefits for local governments that adopt cloud technology?

Cloud Resources

An important characteristic of cloud computing is its flexibility to quickly grow to meet your needs. If you need more resources (i.e., servers, disk storage, software, data, know-how), you can obtain them from cloud providers. In most cases, the process is at least semi-automated so access can be provided quickly. Flexible and easy access to resources is one of the cost-versus-benefit advantages of cloud computing.

With cloud computing, your access to resources is not restricted to what you have available on-premises. You can easily access cloud resources available from any part of the world, and you can access it from anywhere. All you need is your ID and password.
A good example of the ability to easily access cloud resources is the large and comprehensive datasets cloud providers are making available, including Esri with ArcGIS Online. ArcGIS Street Maps and Imagery Maps provide detailed and comprehensive datasets for the United States, for much of Canada, and for many other places in the world.

Hybrid Cloud
The majority of Cityworks users have moved to Cityworks Server and ArcGIS Server. Some of you are in the process of upgrading to Cityworks Server. Nearly all of you already have in-place your server and network hardware and in-house expertise. The best course for you is to amortize this investment. Is the cloud useful for you? The answer may be found as you consider the value of a hybrid-cloud approach using ArcGIS Online.

Esri ArcGIS Online allows users to create and serve map data on the web, allowing users to take advantage of direct integration with their on-premises ArcGIS system. Users are able to upload their geographic datasets to ArcGIS Online and turn them into a web service. For Cityworks users, this might include uploading GIS data created and maintained on-premises, such as their sewer and water lines, sidewalks, or trees. ArcGIS can also map out tabular data. Once the data is uploaded to ArcGIS Online, the data can be overlain as a “mashup” in conjunction with datasets provided by Esri to enhance the usability and power of the GIS.

Every business entity needs to consider how it can more efficiently utilize limited resources in a sustainable manner. This applies to Azteca Systems—Cityworks and Cityworks user organizations. None of us have unlimited resources. Cloud computing provides an efficient means for supplementing our computing resources. Cityworks is in sync with the major trends in cloud computing and in particular with Esri’s cloud computing initiatives available from ArcGIS Online.