August 2007

"There is a hidden revolution going on: geography is moving from niche to the mainstream."

Scott Davis, Author and Consultant

In this time of excitement over the emergence of mapping technologies like Google Earth, Personal Navigation Devices, GPS technologies for tracking vehicles, and so much more, a little known phenomenon has also been taking place: the explosive growth of open source mapping technologies.

Leading the way in this area is DM Solutions Group (DMSG) - a small company based in Ottawa, Canada who is working closely with customers and partners from around the world to incorporate mapping into their web environments.

Web Mapping is a highly specialized niche market that can be applied to almost every conceivable industry. It is this peculiar combination that is at the heart of why the open source software development approach has been so successful in this area.

Customization v.s. Technology

Web Mapping is used today in many different markets including real estate, forestry, health care, search engines, and vehicle tracking. In each of these markets, web mapping alone is not sufficient to solve a particular problem; it is the custom application of this technology to meet a specific need that creates value. The net effect is that value is highly skewed to the end solution and not the underlying technology. Combine this with the unique skills required to develop web mapping applications, and the value this places on services, and you have the perfect breeding ground for successful open source projects.

DMSG began to realize this power in 2000 when the software company struck the hurdles of applying proprietary technologies to deliver solutions for customers. The specific requirements of these customers pushed the limits of the underlying technology in ways that could best be accommodated by enhancing or modifying the core technology. At the same time it was apparent that customers were valuing the services delivered by DMSG, not the software. This set of events led to DMSG taking the plunge with an emerging open source project from the University of Minnesota called MapServer. Neither DMSG nor their customers have looked back since.

DMSG committed to moving all of their customers to MapServer and began to commit technology enhancements such as supporting a Microsoft Windows installation (only Linux was supported previously), adding scripting environments such as PHP, and implementing support for emerging standards from the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC).

Between 2000 and today, a number of startling developments have taken place:

  • DMSG has been responsible for close to 50% of the code in the current codebase: almost all directly supported through commercial business
  • The MapServer project has grown from a small community of approximately 200 installations to estimates of over 100,000 representing a significant portion of the market share for these technologies
  • In 2005, Autodesk became the first major vendor of GIS technologies to release the code base for their web mapping platform through an open source license
  • In 2006, with the growing success of open source mapping, the Open Source Geospatial (OSGeo) Foundation was formed with the mandate to be the home for the most important open source geospatial projects in the industry
  • In 2006, FOSS4G, the annual open source geospatial conference had 550 attendees, significant growth from the who attended in 2003
  • By the end of early bird registration, the 2007 edition already had 450 registrations, with the total expected to exceed 800

In addition to MapServer, at least two other critical open source projects have emerged as foundation technologies in the industry: MapGuide Open Source (contributed by Autodesk) and OpenLayers, a JavaScript library for interfacing with various mapping servers.

All three of these projects share one thing in common: they provide highly generic web mapping capabilities that form the starting point for solutions delivery to customers. This combination has attracted business to participate in their advancement and application for customer needs.

The Open Source Advantage

Looking back at the fundamentals of web mapping technologies, we begin to see why the open source development process has been so powerful. A couple of critical characteristics:

  • Web mapping is and will likely remain a niche specialization, yet demand for the technology comes from virtually every definable industry
  • Core web mapping technology is rapidly becoming a commodity, yet the combination of skills required by an organization to deploy web mapping are unique

These characteristics define three of the central reasons why web mapping technology has seen so much success as open source projects. Although these characteristics favour the development of core open source web mapping technologies, they also demand breadth in terms of skills, knowledge and organizational structure that are not conducive to having all of these activities take place within one or a few organizations. Some examples of this diversity include:

  • Diversity of skills: C/C++ software development, GIS analysis, cartography, web application developers, web designers
  • Diversity of knowledge: Understanding of software development, geospatial information, web mapping plus domain knowledge from every unique community requiring web mapping technologies
  • Diversity of organizational structure: These include all levels of government, enterprise solutions, software as a service, and software providers

Developing an organization that can contain any one of these groups of skills, knowledge or organizational structure is extremely difficult if not impossible. However, delivering any one solution around web mapping requires the right combination of characteristics from each of these areas.

In order to meet this demand, solutions are being developed through business partnerships, and the emergence of a flexible and dynamic ecosystem around open source web mapping technologies.

Today, the open source web mapping ecosystem is in its infancy; however its characteristics are already quite clear. It is functional, growing, and maturing every day. Coming out of it are an interesting array of business stakeholders who collectively are the ecosystem.

These businesses can loosely be classified as:

  • Caretakers: Developers who build and support the core open source web mapping technologies
  • Professionals: Power users and web mapping experts who deploy solutions for others
  • Specialists: Domain experts who strive to incorporate spatial components for a specific industry, domain or market segment

Together these groups bring together in dynamic ways their services, skills, market presence and understanding to deliver the right solutions from customers. These solutions are often on the surface very commercial and very proprietary. However, underpinning all of them is the common open source web mapping technologies that are servicing over 100,000 installations around the world.

Open Source: More than just Maps

DMSG may be a world leader in open source web mapping technologies, but that's not the only open source technology that influences the company. DMSG has always taken a best-of-breed approach to technology. The experience gained from collaborating with open source web mapping projects has helped the company make better decisions when deciding whether or not to adopt open source technology for other parts of the company's business.

DMSG's development team is our largest consumer of open source technologies, for both operating system needs (in particular Linux) and web server (Apache). DMSG also makes extensive use of open source scripting languages, in particular PHP along with some work in Python. Most of the company's database work is completed with Postgresql and MySQL for both consulting activities and internal systems.

Open source technologies are also finding their way into the company's business activities through some adoption of Open Office, Mozilla Firefox, and Mac OSX which runs on top of a modified FreeBSD operating system.

DMSG and Open Source in the Marketplace

DMSG has established its presence as a leading caretaker of open source technologies around the world which has driven much of the company's growth, marketing and sales activities.

Taking a leadership role and track record for developing high quality web mapping technologies has helped drive demand for the company's services. Unlike a conventional model of developing a product and striving to get the product to market, open source brings the core technology to the market instantaneously around the world. By positioning itself as a leading expert in these technologies, and continuing to advance the commercial priorities for the company around the core open source technologies, DMSG is now reaping the rewards of significant demand for services which is driving a new round of growth for the company.

Check out that Map!

The geography industry is exploding especially where that information is delivered to the web. Open source technologies are at the forefront of this explosion with demand for the technology and for commercial services growing with blazing speed.

Just like the invisible world of servers and the 70% of them that run Apache, next time you see a map, remember there's a good chance open source technology is making it possible.

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