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GIS and Cloud: A Match Made in Heaven?

A partnership between Amazon and geographic software company Esri helped Douglas County, Neb., put GIS services in Amazon’s cloud.

by / August 14, 2012
Douglas County, Neb., uses an Amazon dashboard for overseeing GIS information. Photo courtesy of Douglas County.

Arguably one of local government’s most important functions is maintaining and updating map layers and other GIS data and applications used for zoning, property assessment, emergency response and other vital functions. Increasingly that information is being stored in the cloud, especially as the technology has matured.

Such is the case for Douglas County, Neb., which is using a cloud solution to test and run GIS applications. The county, whose boundaries include Omaha, has been a longtime user of solutions from Esri, the Redlands, Calif.-based company that specializes in geographic software and services. In 2010, the county put those GIS applications into the Amazon Web Services platform after the county decided it was time for a hardware upgrade, said Mike Schonlau, the county’s GIS coordinator.

At the time, Schonlau said, Esri was releasing products that were going to be made available through Amazon Web Services, he said. Once the IT stars aligned, Douglas County began testing its GIS-based applications in Amazon’s cloud.

“We started small; [we] started simple with a test server and did a few simple things: put up a very basic website on an Amazon Web server, and moved from that to establishing a database up in one of their Amazon servers,” Schonlau said.

The Amazon-Esri one-two punch was years in the making, the beginnings of which took root in 2008, when the two companies partnered as a way to help IT enterprises such as Douglas County’s.

One application the county tested and now operates in the Amazon cloud is Cityworks — a work order and asset management system integrated with GIS to help users visualize work and service requests. The third-party application runs exclusively with Esri software in the Amazon cloud, Schonlau said.

According to Cityworks, Douglas County has been using the application since 2005 and was later implemented in the city of Omaha in 2006. Because the Omaha and Douglas County share IT and GIS resources, the application was extended for use across multiple city and county departments.

Douglas County officials cite benefits from the Esri-Amazon package that are typical of cloud computing: no more operating desktop and server products locally, less staff time spent on managing hardware because there are  fewer physical servers being used, and less worry about performing software upgrades and dealing with server outages.

Although Amazon has had its own issues with server outages in the past — last year the company’s EC2 cloud storage went down — Schonlau said the county has experienced fewer outages since it went to a cloud solution.

“The reality is prior to using that [Amazon] server, we had a lot more outages running on our local environment partly because we don’t have the resources to establish a data center like they have,” Schonlau said.

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Sarah Rich

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. She wrote for for Government Technology magazine from 2010 through 2013.

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