shrug-l: ArcGIS Alternative

Tripp Corbin tcorbin at
Tue Apr 5 09:01:23 EDT 2011


As many have pointed out there are alternative software applications to
Esri's ArcGIS. There are a few commercial application such as MapInfo,
Manifold, GeoMedia, Map3D, and more. There is also an ever growing list
of open source applications such as GRASS, MapServer, OpenGeo and so on.
I have over the course of my career used ArcGIS (Desktop and Server),
Map 3D, and MapGuide. I have also seen MapServer, Manifold and MapInfo
in action though never actually used them personally.


Some of these alternative applications such as Manifold have a desktop
application and an IMS application. Others are more one function type
applications. Many can be mixed and matched. Most are less expensive
than Esri if you are only looking at the direct software cost. As others
have pointed out though there are many other things to consider. 


Is the replacement capable of providing all the functionality I need? Of
course that is the first big question you must answer. If you are only
using basic ArcView level tools, then I would say several of the
applications listed above would work speaking strictly from a software
perspective. However if you start looking at higher level functions such
as topologies, networks, relationship classes, annotation, cartographic
output (representations, Maplex, ArcPress and so on) , and multiuser
editing, you find these require a truly multi-tiered and integrated
platform that is flexible and able to easily grow to meet changing


Esri's ArcGIS suit is designed from the ground up to be a completely
integrated solution that can start small and grow to meet increasing
demands. With applications for desktop, server, and mobile all based on
a similar architecture, you know the components will work together. This
means easier and less costly implementations. 


How do I use the system? A GIS is only as good as the data and the
people operating it. So if we are implementing a new system we must be
able to figure out how it works, what it's limitations are and so on. It
has been my experience that documentation for Open Source applications
is hit or miss. This is largely controlled by the user community and how
active they are about posting their own personal experiences. So there
is little guarantee you will be able to find answers to your questions.
Esri has a well established support structure and a wealth of
documentation available to its users. The new Resource Center is a
perfect example. It provides a one-stop shop for access to up-to-date
help, forums, blogs, patches, sample codes and more. This certainly
makes finding answers to issues much easier.  


Can I find people that know how to use and maintain the system? We know
that Esri has a large user base. Just look at this email list. 90% of
the questions are about how to do things using ArcGIS. This means there
is a ready pool of people that know how to use the software, making it
much easier to expand or find new GIS staff members. Can the same be
said for other solutions? I don't think so. This means those you can
find with experience are limited and very possibly have higher salary
requirements which might offset any cost savings you might have seen
with the software purchase. Also how do you know what you are getting if
you too are new to the software? What proof do you have that they do
know what the claim to know? Esri's new technical certifications provide
some industry wide standard for proving users have some level of
knowledge using Esri software. This gives those not in GIS a method to
help evaluate a potential employee's knowledge. 


If I am moving from Esri to another system, where do I get the training
I need for my staff? Anytime you implement a new system, there will be a
learning curve. You can generally expect between 6 to 12 months before
staff is back up to speed on the new system at the same level they were
with the old. Training is going to be one of the keys to getting staff
up to speed. Many of the commercial software applications have training
materials and even possibly an instructor network. This is not true of
most of the open source applications. Even with the commercially
available applications because they are not as widely used as Esri, you
might have to travel to other parts of the country or pay more to have
an instructor come to you. Esri, due to its large user base, as multiple
training options. You can go directly through Esri and take classes
online, via webinars, books or traditional instructor led classes. They
also have a network of Authorized Instructors across the US. Of course
many Universities, Colleges and Tech Schools also offer classes on Esri
software. These multiple training options breed competition which helps
keep cost down and makes it easier to educate your staff. 


Do you have any custom scripts or models? Of course if you were to
migrate from Esri to another solution any of the custom scripts or
automation models would have to be migrated as well. This is certainly
another cost. Other things to consider with this are: Does your staff
have the ability to migrate those? Does the new implementation support
those functions? What API's are available? Of course Esri's dropping
support for VBA makes this note as strong a point as some of the others
since may custom applications are having to be rewritten to Python since
the release of ArcGIS 10 but still something to consider. If you are
using web applications, do forget about those. Does the new product
support Flex, Silverlight or whatever you have your application written
on? Can it provide similar output as ArcGIS Server? Remember people
don't like change. If your web application is heavily used by decision
makers, they will want the new system to look and act the same. It can
get very costly if you have to force a system to mimic ArcGIS Server
functionality if it is not really designed to do so. 


I am sure there are many other things to consider but that is what I can
come up with off the top of my head. I have tell there is a major County
here in Georgia that was using a majority open source based software
solution. It all worked great when those that implemented it and created
the multitude of custom scripts were still there. Over the years they
left and the system became harder and harder to manage. They have now
decided to transition to an entirely Esri ArcGIS based system because of
all the things I mentioned above. 


So there are my 2 cents. Of course as an Esri Business Partner and
Certified ArcGIS Desktop Trainer, I am a bit biased. I have however
tried to express my honest opinion. Hope this is some help.   



Tripp Corbin, MCP, CFM, GISP
Vice President, GIS/IT
Keck & Wood, Inc. <> 
(678) 417-4013
(678) 417-4055 fax


From: shrug-l-bounces at
[mailto:shrug-l-bounces at] On Behalf Of Keith
Sent: Monday, April 04, 2011 6:23 PM
To: shrug-l at
Subject: shrug-l: ArcGIS Alternative


Hey Shruggers,


My purchasing department is making me do a cost benefit analysis of
paying our annual maintenance to ESRI versus abandoning ESRI in favor of
some other GIS software, if there is such as thing.


Are there any comparable GIS suites out there that have the same, or
greater, functionality as Desktop and Server 10?


And what is there cost to replace, and implement, 2 ArcInfo concurrent
use licenses, 1 ArcGIS Server Std Enterprise license and 1 EDN license?


Silly exercise, but one I have to do nonetheless.


Keith Sandell, MBA

GIS Manager, Corporate Analytics

Citizens Property Insurance Corporation

2101 Maryland Circle, Tallahassee, Florida 32303


ofc. 850.521.8341   |   cell 850.727.2897


"If we are to achieve results never before accomplished we must expect
to employ methods never before attempted." - Francis Bacon


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