Can someone help me tell the different between ArcGIS online, ArcGIS server and ArcGIS publisher?

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ArcGIS Publisher is an extension to ArcGIS Desktop. Its installation files comes together with the ArcGIS Desktop software media and can be installed either together with the ArcGIS Desktop installation or later on. It is licensed separately which means you are supposed to obtain a license for it.

ArcGIS Publisher converts ArcMap (.mxd) and ArcGlobe (.3dd) documents into the published map format (.pmf) used with ArcReader. Published maps from ArcMap are two dimensional (2D), while those published from ArcGlobe are three dimensional (3D).

This means you can package your map with the data (a bit like a map package concept) into a file that other users that might not have ArcGIS Desktop installed will be able to open and interact with. The software they can use for that is ArcReader, which is available for download for free and provides some limited experience of interacting with the map and using some navigation and map explore tools.

ArcGIS Server is a server software that you obtain separately from ArcGIS Desktop. It will let you provide shared access to the GIS resources you might have (exposing them as web services) for many users either within your organization or to the public via the Internet. Those services can be open in various clients such as tablets, smartphones, laptops, desktop workstations, web browsers etc. Basically, it can be any piece of software that can connect to the Internet and "talk" with the ArcGIS Server services via HTTP. You author resources in ArcGIS Desktop (most often ArcMap) and then publish them as services. More on what kind of resources can be published here.

This type of sharing the GIS resources is much more powerful comparing to ArcReader because you can interact with the maps and data in more flexible way (query, extract data, modify, rich geoanalysis). With ArcReader you have just a "viewer" level access to the map resources published and you work with a snapshot of data (which means when data get updated, you need to re-publish your map document and send it again). When using ArcGIS Server, you don't have to make sure every client that needs to access the published map file has ArcReader installed; GIS services can be accessed by many different applications that are available from Esri (ArcMap, ArcGIS Web Viewers and web mapping APIs (SL, Flex, JS)) or 3rd party companies. And of course you can develop your own web/desktop applications that will access the ArcGIS Server services.

ArcGIS Online is a bit like CMS for web mapping and GIS workflows management. It is hosted by Esri in the cloud and will let you publish and make your GIS resources available much like you can do with ArcGIS Server. However, you don't need to install any software on-premises, since you access the server software that Esri hosts.

Access to ArcGIS Online can be free when using the personal global account (I think it is still available; then you have limited storage and all your GIS resources published will be available to the public) or can cost you (using ArcGIS Online for Organizations also known as ArcGIS Online Subscription, which lets you make your services private as well as gives your personal website access with the access to the exposed resources).

Alternative to ArcGIS Online is ArcGIS Portal which is ArcGIS Online software that you can install on-premises in case you don't want to expose your resources to the Internet or for any other reason. You license ArcGIS Portal as an extension to ArcGIS Server software since 10.2 (which means it is not available directly). Earlier, it was a separate product that was accessible only via Esri Professional Services. Portal will let you organize your resources within a company and manage the services from one place.


A good place to read about the various parts of the ArcGIS Platform is here.

That article describes ArcGIS for Server and ArcGIS Online like this.

ArcGIS for Server — Powerful GIS back-office software that enables centralized, enterprise-level geodatabase management and server-based publication of maps and geographic information services throughout the enterprise and on the Internet as web services. ArcGIS Server supports the leading enterprise database management systems (DBMS): Oracle, SQL Server, DB2, Informix, and PostgreSQL. It is available on Windows or Linux servers on-site or in cloud configurations. ArcGIS Server provides the core technology for implementing large-scale GIS in organizations and businesses worldwide.

ArcGIS Online — Complete cloud-based, collaborative, content management for working with geographic information. The ArcGIS Online platform is a key capability of ArcGIS and is leveraged throughout the ArcGIS system. Anyone can use ArcGIS Online to find, create and share maps by visiting the www.ArcGIS.com website. This website provides free access to authoritative maps and data published by Esri, its partners and the GIS community. Anyone can login and create their own web maps by mashing up this data with beautiful built-in basemaps, loading their own data in from files and spreadsheets, or creating features using drawing tools.

ArcGIS Publisher is an extension to ArcGIS for Desktop that is described elsewhere:

ArcGIS Publisher lets you easily share and distribute your GIS maps, globes, and data with anyone. Using ArcGIS Publisher, you can convert ArcGIS map and globe documents to published map files (PMFs) that are viewable with ArcReader, a free application.

My quick summary of the differences are that:

  1. ArcGIS Publisher is not centered around interactive web delivery of spatial data. Instead it uses a specialised format to publish maps that can be used in a free viewer (ArcReader), and is analagous to publishing a PDF file for the free Adobe Reader.
  2. ArcGIS Online is a hosted solution for Web GIS
  3. ArcGIS for Server is an on-premises solution for Web GIS.

There are many overlaps in functionality between ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS for Server so I have only focussed on the high level differences in my summary.

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