Sunday, August 7, 2011

How FOSS4G had a profound impact on my geospatial technology path

As some of you will know, the FOSS4G 2011 conference is coming up in Denver and I am the conference chair. I have only been to one previous FOSS4G, which was in Victoria in Canada in 2007. That event had a profound impact on my perspective on the geospatial industry, and on the software platforms I've chosen to implement geospatial applications on since then. And it has saved my companies a lot of money! So I wanted to share some perspectives about my experience at FOSS4G and what I've learned about open source software, to explain why you should come to FOSS4G, especially if you've never been before.

Back in 2007 I had just left my job as CTO of Intergraph and was weighing up what to do next, and looking at ideas for a geospatial startup company. I'd spent 20 years in the geospatial industry working with closed source products, and knew very little about open source geospatial products. Towards the end of my time at Intergraph, I'd been getting quite a few questions from sales guys, in Canada in particular, about the fact that their customers were showing interest in open source software, which was free, and how should they sell against that?  So I'd done a bit of research and had become interested in particular in PostGIS, the open source spatial database, as a possible platform for applications I was looking at in my new (yet to be created) startup, Spatial Networking. The fact that it was free was obviously attractive to a new startup owner, especially as I was looking at a system that (I hoped) would need to be deployed on many servers to cope with large numbers of users.

Open source software tends not to have such flashy marketing material as closed source software, so after a bit of digging around online and not finding all the information I was after, I got in touch with Paul Ramsey, who is one of the main people behind PostGIS. He suggested I should come up to FOSS4G to find out more. I did and was really impressed by the whole experience, both the event in general and what I found out about PostGIS - you can read my writeup at the time here. As I said in that writeup, there was much more energy and buzz than I had seen at other geospatial conferences I was used to attending.

I went ahead and used PostGIS at Spatial Networking and on other projects, including my current project Ubisense myWorld. I continue to be very impressed with PostGIS - it does all the core things you expect a spatial database to do (I had a lot of previous experience with Oracle Spatial and other systems), and it's FREE! I have never hit a bug during my time using it.

So what have I learned about open source geospatial software in those four years? First of all let me say that I have no strong predisposition to open or closed source development approaches, per se. I am happy to chose either open or closed source products depending on what I need in a given situation. What I do have s strong predisposition to is FREE. Obviously a product needs to meet your requirements, but assuming it does then free is rather attractive compared to having to pay for something. This is especially true in a cloud environment, where you may scale up to running many servers, and traditional per server licensing costs can really hurt you financially.

People in the closed source world often raise concerns about support in the open source world. My experience hasn't borne out this concern. With PostGIS, I've never needed support, it just works. With MapFish, another open source product we're using for myWorld, we needed a few enhancements. Some were addressed by the community within a month or two, others we were able to do ourselves as we had access to the product source code. I very much doubt that we could have got enhancements made in a mature closed source product in that timeframe. There are also more and more options in the open source geospatial world to pay people to do enhancements or fixes for you. Again it's a bit dangerous to make generalizations, you can get good support or poor support on different closed source products, and you can get good support or poor support on different open source products. But my experience with the open source products we've chosen has been very good.

I think that after price, perhaps the aspect of open source that I value most is longevity and predictability. Many times during my career, I have seen projects suffer because a vendor has decided to stop development of a product (or feature). I have also seen dramatic changes in terms of service or costs of online services. Google App Engine is one example of the latter - many people put significant effort into developing applications that were running for free, then Google changed the pricing model and people found themselves facing large costs they hadn't planned on. With an open source product that has a strong community behind it, there is much more long term stability. You know it's not going to go away tomorrow. Even if some developers leave, others are there to cover for them. And in the worst case you have access to the source code so could continue to maintain it yourself (though that's a very unlikely scenario as long as the community of developers has a certain critical mass). I have been moving more components of myWorld towards open source because of this predictability.

So anyway, if you are still paying for geospatial software you owe it to yourself and your company to come to FOSS4G and find out what all this open source software is about. There is a parallel universe out there with software products that have great capabilities and are FREE! It's also worth saying that in general there is good interoperability between open and closed source systems, so it's not an all or nothing proposition. In general open source web and database products are very strong, and they may well be able to complement your investment in existing applications.

This is the first time that FOSS4G has been in North America for 4 years, and it is not likely to be here again for another 3, so this is a rare opportunity if you are based here to meet a wide range of people developing and using these products. So I hope to see you in Denver in September at FOSS4G!

To finish up, check out this video featuring members of the organizing team talking about why you should be there:

FOSS4G 2011 Denver from Tyler Mitchell @ OSGeo on Vimeo.