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I am a long standing GIS developer and consultant. I am often asked, is there still a place for Desktop GIS, to which I, currently, answer, of course; if there are jobs specific to individuals, you shouldn't be developing enterprise solutions for them.

However, with the advent of the cloud (for want of a better descriptor), and the advances in delivering Web Services and functionality via the cloud, how long do you think it will be before enough functionality is deliverable via the cloud? Or do you think, as I do, there will always be a place for desktop GIS?

I am interested, as it is a developing situation and most of my clients are interested in knowing where we (GIS) are heading. For now, I still believe that the application or resolution of complex GI problems will necessitate the need for Desktop apps and that it will be some time before all the necessary functionality is deliverable via the web AND, I believe it is still not worth the extra development for companies in delivering or developing complex solutions for power GIS users.

What say you?

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Great question! I don't think cloud computing will crowd out desktop GIS completely in the forseeable future as there is no one size fits all solution to every GIS problem. That said, servers are expensive and keeping up with the latest technology is difficult for small businesses, local governments, etc., so I can see how they would look to cloud solutions if it can save money and get the job done -- something that remains to be seen. –  blah238 Dec 13 '11 at 10:50
This is the dichotomy we have. Whilst there will never be a one size fits all, will there be the potential to call on all functionality a heavy end GIS user could need via the cloud? Will it replace desktop? My current belief, is that you need to disagregate the gis users, identify what their group needs, and go from there; some clients can have all of their needs delivered via the cloud, some have none delivered, but in the main, it's a mix; where does our industry grow (go) from here? I am genuinely interested in your thoughts. Cheers @blah238 –  Hairy Dec 13 '11 at 12:54
To answer the subject line, the direction we are moving is to the cloud. I'm not sure that is what we should be doing, wholesale. I'm happy to make use of new "out there somewhere" resources and tools. However I don't think it wise to replace desktop with cloud without taking a careful and thoughtful look and what is lost and gained for the particular problem domain. –  matt wilkie Dec 14 '11 at 20:55
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I think it is going to move from desktop to cloud, and here's why. I currently run virtual training courses where the users log on to Amazon virtual machines to do the exercises. Similarly, if I want to do some testing I just fire up a machine and get to work. It's simple, it's configurable, and it's efficient; and I think it's going to soon reach the tipping point where it's just natural to work this way.

My point is not to think of cloud computing as just a way to store and serve data: you can create virtual machines in the cloud. When you say a GIS user could have a lot of different uses and tasks, then the ability to use pre-configured machines like this means you don't need to have a desktop computer running everything. And the cloud is scalable, so for processing you just fire up as many cores/engines as you need to get the job done in the optimum time.

As for data, vector is certainly storable in the cloud right now. I think raster is feasible, though complicated by having to tile/pyramid data. Point Clouds (Lidar) is going to need an increase in bandwidth to be practical, but I can see that coming.

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If you are in the data creation business, I don't think that there is any substitute for Desktop GIS. The limiting factor in these cases, is the large sizes of data, which would take an inordinate time over any kind of network.

The strength of Cloud based GIS is when you have a centralised server, serving out data, and viewing and limited editing functionality is required on the client side.

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I think with an adequate pipe, the size of the data will not be an issue, to be honest. The way speeds are looking like increasing, 100mbps will be considered slow in the not too distant future, and its this that is driving the clouds development, in my opinion; the size of data being nmoved about isn't an issue. I can already watch live HD sports on my machines at home. It's only going to improve. The data size doesn't phase me at all, especially if you look at this area being improved upon. –  Hairy Dec 14 '11 at 7:31
May I also say that you are stating this is the strength of the cloud now. MY questions was in regard to the cloud in the future, when more functionality will be able to be delivered, and bandwidth increased. I have intimated the strengths now, which you've effectively repeated. I am looking foreards Devdatta –  Hairy Dec 14 '11 at 7:33
@Hairy, our office uses an end to end gigabit network, and it's too slow to source all of the data on the network servers (which are less than 100m from our office). There are still significant processes that need to be done locally. –  matt wilkie Dec 14 '11 at 20:50
@matt wilkie - I think I am being misunderstood here. I know what situation we are in now, and have said in my original post, that for heavy gis use, for heavy hitters, it isn't right NOW, but that TOMORROW things are looking different. You have a 1GB line today. Yesterday, they tested, end to end, a 186GB line over a 130 mile distance, around 3 months ago, they tested a 1PB line using lasers. Just for clarity, 1PB is around a thousand blueray disks. A second (if my maths haven't deserted me)! The near future will see a massive improvement in data transfer speeds via the cloud –  Hairy Dec 15 '11 at 7:33
@Hairy, I guess our tomorrow's have differing lengths. ;-) We've been using gigabit for 7(?) years. A wonderfult boon, I remember well the pleasure of changing out the 100mbit NICs. On the other hand it didn't change how we work that much, whether we eat our dinner remote or local. The most substantive change has been how much we pile on our plates. And even with gigabit in our building, the connections between us and our branch offices are substantially less, let alone the Great Cloud There. I fully expect that someday location will not matter, I just don't see that someday as "tomorrow". –  matt wilkie Dec 20 '11 at 5:29
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Cloud vs desktop represents a false dichotomy.

On the desktop it is common to access resources over a network or the internet. WMS, WFS, SQL and even file servers are all essential to a typical desktop GIS setup. Desktop GIS would be much poorer without the "cloud".

Data stored and processed in the cloud still needs to be rendered on a client machine. Client libraries such as OpenLayers are very powerful in their own right in terms of basic GIS functionality. Cloud GIS needs high quality client side code.

This dichotomy represents a hurdle to future development of GIS. To overcome it we need to change how we think about storing and processing data:

Storing Data

The current practice is to treat data as either local or remote. Either a shapefile on your system or a dataset on a server that is downloaded as you need it. Instead the data should be in the cloud by default, and cached on the client as needed without any user action. Network Links in Google Earth already allow for this in a very basic way.

The development of GIS specific version control systems akin to Git and Github also hold promise.

Processing Data

The current approach is to perform analysis in isolation. Data is brought into a system from the outside and processed. In contrast the Google Earth Engine processes data where it is stored; reducing storage requirements and bandwidth.

Despite the obvious advantages of cloud processing there is still a need for desktop tools. It is simply much cheaper to store moderate amounts of data on a desktop machine compared with current cloud offerings.

A possible future direction is developing protocols that allow data to be processed at the optimal location without user decision or intervention.


  • The cloud is already an intrinsic part of desktop GIS, and client side code will always be essential to cloud systems.
  • No single tool has all functionality, and the advent of the cloud does not change that.
  • The future direction of GIS could be towards the development of protocols that allow the differences between cloud and desktop to be ignored.
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Web services allow for functionality to be delivered over the net, and this is only going to approve. I'd also suggest we're not talking now, where cost savings necessitate the use of the desktop to store data. I am also on about the future of functionality, not the delivery of data; the question was about the delivery of heavy hitting tools via the cloud. Obviously data is delivered via the net, and has been for ages. I am more concerned about the delivery of tools, of functionality. As for rendering data, that too is a bit of an obfuscation... –  Hairy Dec 19 '11 at 8:58
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I love the idea of having a local GIS application on my machine, but then I also loved my landline phone and couldn't envision the day (years ago now) that I left the wired phone and went strictly cellular. It wasn't that the technology was better, but the cost could no longer be justified and additional benefits of wireless won out. The cloud will be a similar sea change. I doubt it will be functionality that eventually drives us off the Windows desktop/laptop environment but cost and the additional flexibility of new wireless access devices. I am writing this now on my Android tablet. We can't think in today's terms about the future but must think as we will tomorrow.

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I agree completely, and I try hard to visualise where we're going to be, in order when I advise my clients, it's on the back of sound thought. I genuinely think functionality is a red herring, as eventually all functionality will be delivered this way, speeds too are improving vastly. I have long been advising that in computing terms, we seem to have come full circle, in that we started computing off with dumb terminals, and, essentially, that's where we're heading again. From starting in GIS a long time ago, we've come quite far in that time. –  Hairy Dec 19 '11 at 15:38
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