Cloud hosting* and virtualization* are a perfect combination that may be suitable for your local government GIS website hosting.

We have managed a fully secure hosting infrastructure for GIS websites at our office since 1997.  Now, after much evaluation and experimentation, we’ve taken the plunge and moved the majority of our hosting operation to the cloud in a virtualized environment and are learning some lessons in the process.  Our new subscription-based web mapping application, MapGeo™, for example, is hosted in a completely virtual, cloud-based environment.

As we gain experience with our new cloud hosting environment (we are using Amazon Web Services (AWS)), we are evaluating the differences and benefits.  Here are some of our observations and a preview of what we are anticipating or confirming to be true:

Extended redundancy  & failover capability

This is a no brainer; because the work can be spread over the cluster, the virtual servers are better protected from hardware failures.  Moving to AWS means we are operating on an especially large cloud-based hosting infrastructure.

Improved performance

Processes that run in a virtual environment can share resources in an optimized fashion allowing processes that demand more resources to find them or spin them up.  In addition, the large cloud services providers have direct and fast connections to the Internet, something which can be expensive for smaller operations.

Infrastructure cost savings

We anticipate a net savings on our overall hosting operations from the following sources: reduced infrastructure costs (hardware, air conditioning, electricity), and reduced operating costs (virtual machine management tools help automate the job of monitoring and managing servers).  We are studying this, stay tuned.

Still a need for hosting administration

Our responsibility for hosting administration has not gone away, but it has changed in a positive direction.  Now, our role is focused on configuring and maintaining the appropriate mix and architecture of the virtual servers in the cloud that constitute our hosting service.   We no longer have responsibility (and the expense) for maintaining the infrastructure, updates, security, network connectivity and other aspects of the hardware/software.

Things we are keeping a watchful eye on

GIS data can require a lot of storage space and cloud-based data transactions have costs associated with them. If your GIS site gets heavy use, your costs will rise.

Additional issues to contemplate

If you decide to explore the cloud option, here are a few additional things to consider:

  • You’ll want to determine if there are constraints to pushing your sensitive data into the cloud
  • You may need to establish secure permanent VPN connections to the cloud vendor’s data center
  • You’ll have to understand the implications that cloud hosting (virtualization and multiple installations) may have for third party software licenses
  • You’ll need to learn and manage the options and choices of your cloud vendor’s service offerings

Cloud-based hosting still keeps our IT staff busy, but, so far, we are finding it to be a more efficient and cost-effective hosting approach.  For a municipal government hosting operation a similar virtualization and cloud hosting combination could be an advantage – in short, you can leverage the performance and reliability of a large computing infrastructure with direct internet connections, and avoid the headaches of continually investing in software and hardware.


Tom Harrington

Photo by akakumo

* Cloud hosting is the utilization of the computing infrastructure of a third party service provider.  Virtualization is the replication of physical servers using software to create virtual machines so that multiple servers can reside on a redundant cluster of physical machines.