I need to choose a GIS system for a small university research centre. We are handling a broad range of data, (for example, numerical tidal analyses, weather data, poverty, isolated economic activity, skills availability and renewable energy resource availability) and operate primarily in countries with relatively poor existing data sets.

We interact with other groups, some of which use ARCGIS. Do I have to wade through every GIS software descriptor on the web, or can someone please give an indication of likely candidates?

  • 1
    Are you trying to avoid or minimize investment in ArcGIS?
    – user3461
    Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 15:21
  • I notice that you have not accepted any of the answers offered. An alternative site within SE that you may want to consider when asking for software recommendations is Software Recommendations (beta).
    – PolyGeo
    Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 3:51

7 Answers 7


The OSGeo is a repository for the open source GIS community. There are a few applications highlighted here that may suite your needs.

QGIS - QGIS can handle a variety of vector and raster GIS data sets. The application interface is intuitive, and has a similar look and feel like ESRI ArcMap. The application may also be installed on a variety of OS platforms, and is also supported on Android.

GRASS GIS - The user interface is a bit less intuitive, however is excellent at performing many different vector and raster spatial analysis operations.

gvSIG - User interface like QGIS is also intuitive and easy to learn. In addition, it also has some nice tools for working with CAD datasets.

  • Great!, just what I needed, thanks. We'll get started
    – Alan Owen
    Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 13:58
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    Agree with QGIS and GRASS. Together they are just as functional as ESRI and these days are very stable
    – Ian Allan
    Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 10:36

Based on your requirements, you may need a GIS stack: server, database, presentation, and then the analysis tools. I'd recommend GeoServer (http://www.geoserver.org) for server, PostgreSQL with PostGIS extension for database (http://postgis.net).

This combination can enable easy distributed authoring/analysis and publishing using WFS, WPS, and WMS, which are OGC standards. You can use the tools mentioned above for analysis. In addition to QGIS, you can also use uDig (http://udig.refractions.net) for editing. For presentation, you may use OpenLayers or GeoExt.

  • Can I run all that on a Win7 64 bit machine? We have a few decent PC's for CFD analysis, so processing power is not an issue, just compatibility.
    – Alan Owen
    Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 13:59
  • Yes, I run Windows 7 64bit with all these software packages. You can also run Mac OSX or Linux if you want. They have been built to run on a number of operating systems. Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 14:48
  • Just to add, you can download the geoserver war archive at geoserver.org/display/GEOS/Stable, and dump it into your tomcat's webapps folder. If you have PostgreSQL already installed, you can install the PostGIS extension using the "Application Stack Builder". That's all you need to get started.
    – okello
    Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 15:57

I am working at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay Ontario. I have created the same type of facility in my university last year, with the same needs. I have chosen to use QGIS with a PostGIS database. We do have educational licenses of ArcGIS and PCI for teaching purposes, but I am trying to stay away from all of that. If you have any other questions, or if you want to chat to share ideas I would be interested to chat.

  • All being well, we'll get to grips with GIS and be in touch.
    – Alan Owen
    Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 14:19
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    I am currently looking to build plugins and moduals that can be added to QGIS to extend its use and abilities. I am using research dollars to pay for the development, which I will in return share with the QGIS community. I am not sure if you, or anyone else is interested, but if so, we should conduct a collaberated venture. Any additions to QGIS that makes it better, and requires less need for ESRI, ERDAS or PCI is a good thing in my world. Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 19:45


For many users, GIS means ESRI ArcGIS. While expensive in a commercial setting, they have rather generous educational licensing, including the provision of free copies to educators for distribution to students, one per licensed seat per year. I would advise at least ticking this box; I don't think people who learned GIS in other ways are less capable, but they might be less employable given the keyword-filtering resumes go through these days. The extensions to ArcGIS range from basic things that should be integrated into the main application to the amusingly archaic to essential tools for a certain niche.

The OSGeo stack is an obvious addition to this, but I don't think it's yet capable of being a full replacement in desktop GIS, at least not with the usability of Arc. Due to constant complaining about ESRI's annoyances, I tried to replace it for an entire summer with mostly QGIS, and failed. QGIS w/ plugins + GRASS + POSTGIS can be hacked around to achieve a lot of GIS functionality, I can believe that, but for learning GIS rapidly, I wouldn't recommend it. There are a lot of different projects under the OSGeo heading, though - in all likelihood you'll find use for some of them even if you don't touch the desktop functionality.

I'm always seeing MapInfo installations mentioned, but the one I used wasn't really mature / feature-ful in the same sense ArcGIS has been. The user interface was lacking, so perhaps it just hid the functionality from me.

Manifold has been highly regarded as an ArcGIS competitor that is at once commercially affordable, comprehensive, and extensively higher-performance than the sometimes antiquated ArcGIS code. They seem to be dragging their feet on updates & bug-fixes in the last few years, though. At the least, if ArcGIS fails to operate on extreme datasets, try this.


Remote sensing software is its own niche, with lots of features that aren't present in the ESRI stack. I've been exposed to ERDAS, and heard about ENVI and PCI. Those three constitute a majority share, but I'm aware that there are a decent number of options out there, some open source (I've heard good things about Opticks). In my own research area, 3D remote sensing is rapidly becoming a thing, as well - LIDAR and automated photogrammetry would be short topics in any RS course I'd teach. See: Meshlab, VSFM, & Photoscan.


For static-map cartography, you'll ideally want Adobe Illustrator, but there are several less expensive commercial choices that may suffice. My experience with Inkscape is a lot like my experience with QGIS - almost there, but missing crucial features like an effective layer dialog.


In the field of data manipulation, you'll definitely want to look at a thorough exploration of Python w/ LabPy. It's too versatile not to teach as a general tool at this point, there's the added inducement of ArcPy, and RPy adds the capability to use basically every statistical algorithm in the world. In addition, very big datasets are typically more amenable to a scripting environment than desktop GIS.


CAD & CAD-like GIS software, often used for surveyors / engineers, has a broad number of options led by Autocad which I'm not qualified to compare, but may not be necessary for a pure GIS program.

Client - Server

Hosting client-server stacks, which becomes important for some classes of GIS user, is the last niche I'm going to mention, but the requirements here are so varied as to make comparison difficult. Other than ArcSDE, The software here is often free, but the server setup and sysadmin to use it is not.

EDIT: I've had the opportunity to revisit QGIS recently and it does seem to have considerably improved, going from 1.5 -> 1.8, in stability & features.


I work for a small university research center myself. The center has been around for over 20 years now, I've only been here about one year. Over the years, they have built relationships with major software vendors in the industry that have resulted in licensing agreements which offer, for the most part, free and unrestricted use of the vendor's software packages. If your center is in the educational realm, and especially if you are a non-profit, many of the major commercial vendors will be willing to provide you educational or reduced license rates. Do not be afraid to ask them. Now, these things can take time, so if you are needing to get up and running as soon as possible, then the open-source solutions provided by others here may be the way to go. However, I encourage you to reach out to vendors of products of interest to you and your field(s) of study.


Some excellent answers here, so I'll just throw one more GIS into the mix viz. Idrisi. Idrisi seems to be a very popular choice for Universitys and student teaching labs. I haven't used it for ages but it is a very capable product and Clark Labs always used to have an academic discount, and I presume they still do.


Since most have mentioned open-source such as GRASS, I'll assume you have a few thousand for annual licenses within your department. Excelis ENVI+IDL, ERDAS Imagine, and possibly ArcGis Desktop (ArcInfo 10.1). Envi, Imagine, and ArcGis Desktop are all major, international providers of GIS software. Imagine is said to be the rosetta stone of GIS as it interfaces with just about every GIS format imaginable. I'm most familiar with ENVI+IDL myself and have had a good experience with it. There are also several, smaller utilities available that are free and useful. HDFView, Freelook (which is a free version of envi that's hard to find nowadays), Corpscon, 6S, etc. You'll have to prioritize and look at pricing as well as features & functionalities of each option. Good luck!

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