Understanding MapServer Enterprise – a closer look at the latest open source web mapping solution

Big news regarding this move is the development of the Mapserver Foundation (www.mapserverfoundation.org) to support the ongoing development of the open source web mapping platform. The foundation, developed and jointly supported by Autodesk, DM Solutions Group, and The University of Minnesota will be formally established and maintained via a governing body of representatives who will come together early in December to kick off the foundation’s efforts. The independent, non-profit foundation will promote and foster open source web mapping solutions.

This move is significant to:

  • the MapServer Open source community
  • the Mapguide user community
  • the geospatial industry
  • the broader IT industry

The Google Comparison

No doubt the broader IT industry may see this move as perhaps a challenge to Google’s efforts to bring maps and web mapping to the mainstream user. Comparing this effort, however, to Google maps or Microsoft MapPoint is hardly relevant – we will address this issue, however, as it is being brought up by the mainstream IT sector already. Sure, there’s going to be some competition for the developer, however, this move is much bigger. Google has not made the development environment “open” and the concept of open source collaboration is non existent in the Google Map story – my point here is that the Google API is open and freely available, however, it’s not open source. There has evolved a perception by mashers and developers that the open APIs from Yahoo! And Google constitute some sort of “open” application development environment… wrong! Finally, consider the establishment of the foundation… this is huge and a great move! Google tossed the API out to developers and waited to see what would become of it… the results, to say the least, have been incredible, however, there’s been no formal developer portal, official developer resource, or official community resource established. The Google/Keyhole bulletin boards and the Google developer download areas are the next best thing. What adds confusion to the development and progress that Google developers have been making is that unofficial weblogs, hacker websites, and commercial entities have swelled and attracted huge volumes of traffic, perhaps resulting in fragmentation of the developer community and the establishment of seemingly “official” resources which lack any official stamp of approval from Google or the developers building on the API. Perhaps the entry of MapServer Enterprise will change all this, particularly for developers of enterprise applications.

Developers now have an official home for an open source map server solution. Having a governing body and an official home for the developer community sets this project apart from anything that has been done by Google or Yahoo!, and is a huge step in the right direction to help kick off the initiative.  In an open letter to the existing mapserver community, founder Steven Lime described the primary responsibilities of the foundation may include:

• Support code repository and other project infrastructure
• Formalized process for decision-making (e.g. where to host the next conference)
• Legal protection for the source code and developers of the software
• Paying for development work on minor improvements of the platform
• Acting as a central repository for marketing, branding and professional image development of the product
• Providing process for mitigating disputes
• Financial support for advocacy, sponsorship, community events and conferences

“The MapServer Foundation is a logical next step for MapServer, and I look forward to seeing the community grow.” Steven Lime, creator of MapServer. See Lime’s open letter at http://www.mapserverfoundation.org/open_letter.html

From Autodesk’s perspective, why the move to open source?

  • Web-mapping is being commoditized
  • Less complex than desktop apps
  • Previous success of the open source community

Customers will definitely benefit from this move, particularly from the benefits of partnering with an existing community. Lower cost of ownership, fast innovation, and frequent software updates are other compelling benefits that will see a significant cost saving.

“The decision to contribute to the open source community is a reflection of our customers’ desire for faster innovation, more frequent product releases, and lower total cost of ownership,” said Chris Bradshaw, vice president of Autodesk’s Infrastructure Solutions Division. “Autodesk is committed to ensuring open source web mapping technology continues to gain adoption, evolve and add value to the growing geospatial community and marketplace.”

Who will benefit?
According to documents, it’s expected that MapServer Enterprise will appeal to:

  • those not satisfied with their current commercial mapserver solutions
  • government agencies with a mandate to adopt open source software
  • utilities and others already using Linux and other open source technology
  • universities, non-profits, and budget conscious small business owners

Gary Law

Gary Lang of Autodesk discusses MapServer Enterprise

What’s being open Sourced?

Governed by the “Foundation”, a number of projects are to be promoted and supported, including:
- MapServer Enterprise
- MapServer Cheetah (aka. Original MapServer)
- FDO Providers

Autodesk is contributing the following to the project:
- MapServer Enterprise
- FDO Technology
- And some 12 FDO providers including those for ArcSDE, WFS, WMS, SHP, ODBC, and MySQL – Note: The MS SQL*Server and Oracle providers will NOT be open sourced and will be part of the commercial offering.

DWF is not formally part of the Open Source project, however, Autodesk contends that DWF is an “open” format . Supporting this, the company has made available the DWF developer’s toolkit from their website at http://www.autodesk.com/dwftoolkit/. The toolkit is included with MapServer Enterprise. Please note, AutoCAD software is not, nor will become open source!

MapServer and MapServer Enterprise fall under the “foundation” and the Open Source project. The original MapServer project, now known as MapServer Cheetah, founded by Steve Lime of the University of Minnesota will continue to evolve and will likely continue to develop along side MapServer Enterprise… don’t look for the existing MapServer community to be going anywhere!

Features of MapServer Enterprise:
- support for Linux and Microsoft Windows
- server-side programming using PHP, ASP, .NET, or Java/JSP
- plug-in access for new data sources
- support simultaneous connections to multiple DB servers residing locally on Linux or Windows systems
- Built-in access-based security model for authentification
- Scalable server support (useful for large dataset rendering)
- Choice of 2 viewers, DWF (active-X plug-in required) or html (AJAX)
- Supports digitizing map features
- Supports portable viewing in disconnected mode
- Customized viewers using DWF viewer API
- Enhanced labeling and stylization

mapserver viewers

2 Web viewers, DWF (plug-in required), and html (AJAX)

Solutions spawned from this initiative include:
- MapServer Enterprise
- Autodesk MapServer Enterprise (a commercial offering to be released in 2006)
- MapServer Studio (a commercial web authoring app coming inn 2006)

So why would Autodesk do this?

Looking forward, Autodesk will release a commercial application in 2006 likely known as Autodesk Mapserver Enterprise. This product will contain enhanced FDOs (like the technology facilitating Oracle DB connectivity) as well as an authoring environment known as MapServer studio. Like most other popular web development tools, Studio will provide for simple, rapid creation of spatially enabled web-based applications. In a demo of Studio, we saw an Autodesk developer create a simple, yet attractive web mapping application in a matter of minutes with virtually no programming.  Some features of MapServer Studio:
- All aspects of site authoring
- Creation of thematic rules
- Map and layer previews
- Management of access permissions
- Integration of logic rules written in PHP, ASP, .NET, of Java/JSP
- Application creation functionality in DWF or html viewers
- Symbol library with 500+ true color symbols

Regarding MapServer Studio, GISuser reader Jason Birch from the City of Nanaimo, BC (and a Mapguide user) has noted the following regarding studio… “The authoring application (Studio) is excellent.  It follows the Dreamweaver paradigm (code/preview/split) and is way way better than MapGuide Author in terms of use and structure of the data/layers/layouts/maps.  Makes it much easier to maintain multi-map access to the same data.”

Autodesk views this as a tremendous opportunity for the company. The software will evolve rapidly in an open source environment and will be widely accessible. However, with the adoption of MapServer Enterprise commercial opportunities for developers and enhanced awareness of DWF as a format of choice will come. Business partners will see a demand for application development and related services. Obviously, resellers will sell licenses and be required to provide technical support for Autodesk MapServer Enterprise and Studio.

Opportunities for software customization, development of add-ons and utilities, and software localization will provide tremendous business opportunities for developers and Autodesk business partners. With the software residing in the world of open source, there’s nothing to prevent savvy, energetic developers from re-packaging, renaming, and adding value to MapServer Enterprise-based solutions. Imagine a localized product with documentation and some custom features packaged, sold, and supported by a clever MapServer Enterprise developer… hmmmmm. The folks from DM Solutions Group pointed out that a Japan-based developer has been doing just that with the MapServer Cheetah product and has had tremendous success… nice idea!

FYI, Autodesk Mapguide applications will not run on MapServer Enterprise… enter another opportunity for developers. Mapguide apps will need to be re-written to run on MapServer Enterprise. According to Autodesk Corp., existing Mapguide licensees will be given an opportunity to “cross-grade” to MapServer Enterprise as a special price. The company notes that community tools and documentation will come in the future to help those who wish to migrate.

Thanks to Andy Morsell, PE, Spatial Integrators, Inc. for providing a document on developer isues associated with MapServer Enterprise. Andy is a long-time MapGuide user and developer and is a frequent speaker at Autodesk events including Autodesk University. For a gret developer’s perspective and for information about migrating from Mapguide to Mapserver Enterprise I suggest you contact Andy!

About MapServer Enterprise Licensing

It’s interesting to note that MapServer Enterprise is licensed under the LPGL (GNU Lesser General Public License). LPGL ensures that any modifications or enhancements to the source code will remain freely available. LPGL does not require you to share the source code of your enhancements unless you distribute changed versions of MapServer Enterprise to third parties. At the same time, LPGL allows commercial vendors to build and distribute proprietary applications and systems using MapServe Enterprise without any requirement that their commercial products be licensed as open source.

For more information about MapServer and MapServer Enterprise see http://www.mapserverfoundation.org

Looking Ahead

There’s no doubt that Autodesk, DM Solutions Group, and The University of Minnesota are taking some risks by standing behind such a bold move. Will existing Mapguide developers migrate to MapServer Enterprise? Will the existing MapServer community accept Autodesk and Autodesk business partners and developers  into their community? Will the open source community embrace Mapserver Enterprise or stand behind Mapsever Cheetah? It will be interesting to see this story unfold over the coming months.

Relevant Weblinks:

A tip… developers looking for ideas and tips about working with Mapserver Enterprise might wish to consult the Mapserver list. Just recently a post from an Autodesk employee discusses how to generate KML dynamically from MSE Feature Sources. See http://lists.mapserverfoundation.org/pipermail/mse-users/2005-December/000130.html

Glossary:

AJAX – Asynchronous JavaScript and XML, or Ajax, is a web development technique for creating interactive web applications using a combination of XHTML (or HTML) and CSS for marking up and styling information. For a number of tasks, only small amounts of data must be transfered between the client and the server, allowing a number of Ajax applications to perform almost as well as (interpreted) applications executed completely on the user’s machine. This has the effect that pages need only be updated in the user’s browser, rather than having to be entirely refreshed. (Source: Wikipedia)

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