SSP ArcGIS Online, portal

Which do I use: ArcGIS Online or Portal for ArcGIS?

July 28, 2016 — Brian Higgins

When working with clients, I am often asked about SSP’s ArcGIS Online and Portal for ArcGIS deployments.  Typical comments include, “Should we pursue ArcGIS Online or Portal?” or “What the heck is the difference?”  My first response is a simple diagram (below).

Internet Availability Diagram

If the diagram’s scenario (restricted internet access) is comparable to the organization’s, the answer is actually simple.  BUT….When is it that simple?  The diagram is actually designed to form the foundation of discussion.

My coworker and bossman, Skye Perry, originally provided a short comparison of ArcGIS Online and Portal for ArcGIS in his blog post on the Esri roadmap.  The subject is worthy of revisiting because it continues to come up with our clients.


The security requirements for some of our clients have resulted in their lack of consideration of ArcGIS Online.  These rules may include:

  • Restricted or limited internet access (diagram above)
  • Prohibited to share map infrastructure data on the internet or cloud.  Data must be contained within the municipal firewall.

If either of these rules apply to the organization, Portal for ArcGIS would probably be the recommended deployment.  That being said, an article by Skye on the Recommend Architecture for ArcGIS Online is encouraged reading to not completely rule out the option.


Another large difference between Portal and ArcGIS Online is software upgrade frequency and responsibility.  Esri releases about 1-2 upgrades of Portal annually, and it is the municipality’s labor responsibility.

Mr. Ferdinand Magellan

Bet most don’t know that Esri upgrades ArcGIS Online about 3-4 times annually.  Being a centrally hosted, subscription-based SaaS (Software as a Service) model, the upgrades are done behind the scenes.  Although there is an effort to be current, there have been times I have been working with the software and “discover” new “uncharted” enhancements.  This doesn’t put me in the category of Ferdinand Magellan, but it is sometimes an enjoyable surprise.

Although not a huge reason to select one over the other, the increased frequency of upgrade and reduced maintenance of the ArcGIS Online option may benefit an organization.


Although both options offer a Web single sign-on (SSO) to authenticate users, the Portal option must leverage Web Adaptor and ArcGIS Server.  That being said and depending on the configuration, the ArcGIS Online option may require the secondary software as well for direct data access.  SSP has written numerous articles on the subject.

GIS Functionality

Assuming that the organization manually conducts regular upgrades as they are provided by Esri, the functionality is basically the same.  This includes the mapping interface and GIS analysis tools.


So basically the decision boils down to whether the organization requires full control over the data and system security.  Portal for ArcGIS offers that required security completely within the system’s firewall.  If the organization desires a SaaS, cloud-based deployment, ArcGIS Online is the ticket.  In the event aspects of both features are desired where some data content is restricted to within the firewall, a hybrid approach should be considered.

Note:  Please seek permission prior to reproducing the sketch diagram for personal or professional use.  Limited edition autographed prints may be purchased.

Watch our video explanation as well.

We Wrote the Book

The Indispensible Guide to ArcGIS Online

Download It for Free

Brian Higgins

Solution Architect


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