Making a Case for Moving Your GIS to the Cloud

June 6, 2021 — Phil Dunn

If your organization has been discussing moving your GIS platform into the cloud, you are not alone.  Cloud providers like Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform have come a long way in the past few years.  But is it enough?

If your organization is currently facing the decision to move your GIS into a cloud environment, let’s explore how to make a sound case.

Your on-premise data center is not at risk of becoming extinct.  You still have lots of runway for making this decision.  However, a cloud environment can have significant benefits to your organization now.

Moving your GIS into the cloud is more than just building servers and migrating data.  It is a radical change in the way you manage and use your GIS.  This approach can give your organization an opportunity to align your GIS technology stack with your overall business vision.

Where do you start? Create a plan and roadmap for your move to the cloud.  Inventory and document your current infrastructure, including all servers, databases, network components, software, licensing, and all your integration points to your GIS.  Creating a roadmap is a wasted exercise unless you have a good picture of the scope of your Enterprise GIS.

Making a case for moving your Enterprise GIS to the cloud may be best presented by questions you might expect when presenting the idea.

What are the options for moving my GIS from on-premise to a cloud solution?

Simply put, there are many cloud-based hosting options to consider.  There are two basic paths to consider when selecting a provider.  First, you can go directly to a cloud solutions provider like AWS or Azure.  Selecting one of these providers are normally considered a “do-it-yourself” platform.  Both providers have a rich set of tools and services that can enable you to deploy and manage your entire GIS platform.  The second path you may choose to take is a Managed Cloud Services provider.  These providers generally provide value-add services in addition to the hosting platform.  A Managed Cloud Service provider is typically an option for organizations that wish to offload the management of the platform to a third-party.

Which option your organization chooses is often determined by multiple factors such as IT strategies, organization impacts, and the size and budget of your organization.

How does my organization access the resources that are hosted by a cloud provider?

The answer to this question is…it depends.  Your favorite answer, right?  The truth is, there are unlimited options for how you can access your cloud-hosted resources such as storage, databases, servers, and services.  Most often the widely acceptable strategy is for your cloud solution to provide seamless access on you existing network.  This can be achieved by dedicated, redundant options between your organization and your cloud provider.

For example, AWS Direct Connect can provide a 100Mbps private connection between AWS and your datacenter, office, or colocation environment.  This can provide your user base with increased bandwidth throughput and provide a more consistent experience than Internet-based connections.

What about integrations to other systems within our organization?

This topic is typically troubling for some.  But once you understand how your cloud-based Enterprise GIS can be integrated with your existing network, it becomes less troubling.

Challenges with integrating your on-premise systems with your cloud-based systems are normally solved by removing network barriers and increasing bandwidth.  Make those two goals a part of your roadmap strategy and the opportunities for system integrations become more available.

What are the most significant advantages of considering moving our Enterprise GIS to the cloud?

It would be difficult to discuss this topic thoroughly enough to do it justice. However, here are some key advantages to consider:

  • Business continuity. Providers like AWS or Azure provide the ability to develop a BC solution across multiple regions.
  • Scalability. Cloud environments like AWS offer virtually unlimited scalability, some of which are elastic, scaling automatically.
  • Reduced costs. Cost savings could be realized in hardware upgrades, staff, energy consumption, and fewer time delays in providing information to key personnel.
  • Collaboration efficiency. These efficiencies can come in many forms, including partnering vendors or organizations you share information with.
  • Flexibility of work practices. This advantage has emerged as a highly valuable characteristic of your computing platform.  Many of your organization’s employees may now work remotely or need the flexibility of accessing your resources from alternate locations.

 

Should we be concerned about the security of our GIS information assets?

This concern is probably one of the longest-standing blockers for making the cloud decision.  And it should be, given the stories we all hear about hackers penetrating corporate systems.  Now that we can agree on that point, let’s talk about what we do about it.

The reality is that securing your cloud environment is no different than your corporate on-premise environment.  Securing your hybrid on-premise/cloud environment starts with educating your organization’s security architects on the security concepts of your cloud platform.  AWS even offers a Certified Security Specialty certification course that is a recommended option.  Secondly, develop and document a thorough security plan that is bulletproof.  Test your security concepts and measures by challenging them by bringing in a third-part security auditor.

Your cloud-hosted assets can be equally or exceedingly secure than your existing corporate security, but it requires that you do the work to plan for and educate your staff to implement best practices…no shortcuts or compromises.

Where do we start?

The most significant challenge when making the decision to move your Enterprise GIS into the cloud is…making the decision.  To help your organization make the right decision, do the research that will answer your organization’s questions and concerns.  Engaging a trusted partner to assist with this effort may also be a smart choice.  Select a partner that your organization trusts and is experienced and knowledgeable about your Enterprise GIS and cloud environments.

Once you have made the decision, the first step is to thoroughly inventory and understand your entire environment.  Not just the GIS components of your architecture, but all the supporting technologies as well.  To do this, start with a holistic view, formulating a detailed plan that serves as a roadmap. Using this roadmap, you can plan your scope, workload, schedule, and budget.

Don’t underestimate the effort of this endeavor.  Unrealistic timelines and resource allocation can lead to shortcuts and compromises, which only adds risk, which is what we would like to avoid.

Good luck!

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