This column is sponsored by ESRI
There are many considerations when contemplating whether to cultivate in-house capabilities or to rely on the expertise of others. A large part of this equation revolves around how often the toolset is used, and the level of benefit that it brings to your business. An infrequent user requiring spatial analysis and reporting would be much more likely to rely on outside help as opposed to users where geospatial tools are integral to everyday business. For instance, a business interested in finding the optimal sites for their retail outlets is more likely to source a service as opposed to an organization that needs to use geospatial tools to manage assets across a broad geography.
Geospatial capabilities are becoming much more accessible for a wide range of users at an affordable per-person cost, and the varied level of capabilities with different tools provides many different entry points. This much larger gradient of capabilities makes it a bit harder to decide when to make a purchase of either software or services. An organization can now make an initial investment and expand their use and depth of tools much more readily over time than was possible previously.
Rudimentary geospatial query, visualization, routing and navigation tools are being delivered by free web-based tools these days. While this base level of functionality has perhaps diluted some sectors of the geospatial software market, it has also opened peoples eyes to the capabilities. This exposure has made many people inquire about the richer capabilities of professional tools, converting many to the more robust options that are out there.
Cultivating in-house capabilities gives an organization complete management over data, technology infrastructure and system outputs. There’s an added degree of freedom to tailor the toolset to specific needs without relying on the limited understanding of an outside entity. And there’s also a better handle on costs, with a more consistent ongoing cost after the initial investment expense, rather than fluctuating costs that also may limit the amount of decision support that is received based on budget limitations.
One of the most compelling considerations for most businesses to go the in-house route is the security of their proprietary information and data processes. The services route means the reliance on a third party that may hold your data outside of your controlled corporate environment. That lack of data control is a deal breaker for some companies.
While the benefits of in-house expertise are overwheliming in some circles, there are also some considerable headaches that go with this route. The maintenance of multiple software packages, licenses, and hardware are considerable. It’s also an expense to train personnel, and often difficult to find the level of technical expertise that your specific problems may require.
There are a number of different service options in the geospatial space. As noted earlier, there are consultants that will take a look at your operations, ingest your geospatial data and use their own systems and proprietary spatial analysis tools to output reports and other decision support tools. There are service organizations that will stand up customized toolsets that get to the heart of your business needs without requiring a large investment in software. And then there are large software vendors that will sell both software and services to work on large and complex geospatial enterprise integration efforts that require a considerable amount of configuration and customization.
The complexity of geospatial tools often means that outside help is needed, but the level of service help is dependent on the outcomes that an organization is looking from the tools. Many organizations have progressed along the use of geospatial tools rather slowly, with the need for data capture for their operations taking a great deal of time before they can realize the benefits of in-depth geospatial analysis. Data capture and other rather simple aspects of the tools don’t require as much expertise as does such things as custom analysis algorithms and the integration of geospatial capabilities within other enterprise systems.
Software As A Service
An option that straddles the desktop and services options is software as a service (SaaS). This hosted software capability provides tools and technical support in a software package that is hosted on remote servers and accessed through the web. There aren’t very many SaaS options in the geospatial space, but geospatial capablities are likely to enter into more customized toolsets that are tailored to specific businesses. SaaS will never replace the core geospatial capability in all sectors, but it will provide avenues to extend the capabilities to a broader audience.
The advantage of SaaS is that features and functionalities are well engineered and become streamlined more quickly based on feedback from a large number of users. Hosted services provide a great deal of scalability for businesses that are rapidly growing, and can drive down the per user costs. There’s also the convenience of having others maintain and manage servers and there’s no need to rely on internal staff for training and troubleshooting.
The downsides of SaaS are the lack of control, and the fact that you may be locked in for some time to come. Once you’ve put your data onto a remote server, it can be come very difficult and time consuming to move it somewhere else.
As you can see, there are really an overwhelming number of factors in the determination between software versus services, with a considerable amount of gray area between the two. The majority of geospatial practitioners take advantage of both software and outside services, and that’s a trend that’s likely to continue for some time to come.
Read what Jeff Thurston has to say on this subject here.