The Evolution of GIS Software

From tightly scripted software code to the cloud, understanding our history can help guide us in building the technology of the future.
[Note:  This is latest post in our series about Managing GIS.]
There is much we can learn from our past. Each technology advance has been a tradeoff between heavier processing loads and deploying software that was easier to build and maintain. Faster hardware processors and improved network bandwidth provide opportunities for more software innovation. As platform and network capabilities improve, new advances in software move technology forward at an increasingly rapid pace.
Software development history gives us insight into the basic principles that guide us in building the technology of the future. The figure below provides a high-level overview of the major GIS technology changes over the past 20 years.

Evolution highlights of ArcGIS software from 1982 to present.

Tightly Scripted Software Code

The early ARC/INFO software provided developers and professional GIS users with a rich toolkit for geospatial query and analysis and demonstrated the value of GIS technology.

Object-Relational Software

Hardware performance improvements led to more efficient programming techniques deployed in the late 1990s.

Service-Oriented Architecture

Web technology introduced more ways to share data and services, introducing a services-oriented component architecture along with interoperability standards that enable open and adaptive applications developed from multi-vendor component architecture.

Cloud Computing Platform Architecture

Hardware virtualization, data center automation, and self-service cloud computing provide simpler ways to administer and support GIS applications and services.

New Technologies Bring New Opportunities

Software technology migration from scripts to objects to services and to the cloud accelerated the rate of technology change, while increasing demands on hardware performance and network connectivity. The change in technology impacted business processes in an evolutionary way, opening new opportunities for GIS to support enterprise and community operations, helping customers better understand their world, and empowering business with more informed decisions.


This post is an excerpt from Dave Peters’ book Building a GIS: System Architecture Design Strategies for Managers.  Extensive information about successful system design can also be found on the System Design Strategies wiki and in the System Architecture Design Strategies training class

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