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Does Enterprise GIS (such as Esri) Need To Be That Expensive?

If you’ve ever tried to buy a GIS software license from one of the legacy GIS companies in the space, you’ll know that it can be quite a tedious process.  You’re forced to comb through tons of different licensing options, engage in drawn-out calls and meetings with aggressive sales teams, and it often requires lots of back and forth to get to the solution that you’re after.  This is not even mentioning the cost that comes with this.  For example, just look at this Esri price list which shows that if you want to collaborate on a server environment and undertake some advanced processing, you’re probably going to be paying hundreds of thousands of dollars at the end of the day.

For many small and medium-sized companies, this is simply not feasible because the costs and complexity can be prohibitive.  But even for large companies, the costs involved are often the barrier that stands in the way of full-scale GIS adoption.  The natural alternative is to go open-source and use things like QGIS or PostGIS, but these reach their limits when you need to collaborate in the cloud or on a server.  In addition, the investment required to process the data at scale (eg. to set up specific geospatial components for Kubernetes and microservices) remains significant.

Why is it the case that these options are so expensive?  Why can startups like Mapbox or GIS Cloud offer similar functionality at a fraction of the cost?  In this article, I want to explore this and ask the question – do GIS systems must be that expensive?

Why are Legacy Systems So Expensive?

I started my investigation by talking to some high-level executives from top GIS vendors and was shocked by what I discovered.  These companies don’t feel any pressure or incentive to evolve their licensing model into modern norms because the majority of their revenue is coming from the public sector, government institutions, and defence clients.  These organizations are not price-sensitive and have the software so deeply integrated into their systems that they are more than happy to pay whatever they need to pay to keep the software running.

Changing GIS software would be a mammoth task for these clients and would likely cost a lot more – or at least that’s the rationalization made to stick to the status quo.  The budgets for these GIS solutions have been engrained for years, and no one questions it.  This is a very similar paradigm to what we see with companies like SAP, Oracle, Cisco, and the like – who have such deep buy-in into their ecosystem, that they don’t face the same competitive pressures that other software does.  As such, there is no reason to change.

As a result, GIS companies are reluctant to change their pricing model to suit the rest of the market because they risk alienating the large clients who represent the lion’s share of their revenue.  Instead, companies like Esri are investing up to 25% of their revenue in product development and R&D to come up with new solutions or acquire companies with their existing client base to provide the growth that they seek.  Esri and other “legacy players” are doing a great job in terms of innovation and product discovery, but this comes at the cost of making the industry-standard GIS software more affordable and accessible to a broader market.

What About Open-Source?  Isn’t it More Affordable?

Open-source software has come a long way in the GIS space, and it does offer a viable alternative for many.  QGIS, for example, is an excellent alternative to ArcGIS Desktop or Pro, and many organizations rave about its functionality.  In Europe, where the sentiment for open-source is much more pronounced, a number of large enterprises and public sector clients are moving to QGIS, pulling the entire industry with them.  For online collaboration or server-based solutions, there are also great tools like Geoserver, PostGIS, OpenLayers, GeoExt, or Geonode that are leading the way.

The challenge with implementing these open-source tools at scale is that you need a strong software development function that can piece together these components into a workable system and an even larger team to transition from an MVP to a scalable enterprise-grade ecosystem.  This next level of scalability involves nuanced integration, cybersecurity, documentation, and much more.  As such, many companies end up investing similar amounts of money and effort to make these work – and this is a problem for organizations who don’t see it as their core activity.

Just because it’s open-source, it doesn’t mean that the barrier to entry is not there.

What About Hybrid Open-Source?

Another trend that we see in the geospatial sector is a hybrid approach that combines open-source tools such as QGIS which power the desktop processing, and startup options like GIS Cloud or Mapbox, which look after the cloud and server collaboration.  These can be integrated seamlessly thanks to dedicated plugins and toolboxes and offer the full suite of features without breaking the bank.

This is a great option for many because it can save a lot of time and money.  Once you’ve set your workflows up and scripted some custom integrations you can get going in just a few days.  This is much faster than setting up AirGIS server environments which can take weeks.

On the top, going “hybrid” gives much greater flexibility as you are not operating in a closed environment. You can easily connect to external databases and scale your operations with much bigger datasets. Also with platforms like GIS Cloud you easily set up your own WMS and WMF servers without having to buy expensive Esri licenses and tools such as Carto or Mapbox let you style your maps in the most creative way. Finally, there are no limitations on how you share your maps internally and externally which has been always a big disadvantage for closed ecosystems such as Esri.

We’ve seen a lot of organizations go this way as you’re able to get the best of both worlds – the power of open-source desktop tools and the cloud benefits of large-scale data processing, collaboration, and publishing.  This is very positive for the industry as a whole because it enables wider use of these tools.

Comparing Prices

Let’s look at the numbers.  For our comparison, let’s assume that you have a typical GIS team of 5 members and they will need to do some large data processing, collaborate on the dataset, and publish results to the rest of the organization.  Here’s how that would stack up:

As you can see, the numbers strongly point to a hybrid solution that can significantly lower the barriers to entry and make industry-leading GIS solutions more accessible.


Without the incentives for legacy GIS providers to bring their prices down, organizations must look elsewhere to get the functionality that they need.  As we’ve seen above, while open-source solutions are very powerful, the development and maintenance costs should not be underestimated.  Hybrid solutions seem very well placed to fit that need, allowing greater flexibility and agility for organizations who want to get the best of both worlds.

It remains to be seen how the industry will morph from here, but here’s to hoping that more affordable tools push the sector forward and encourage more innovative pricing models that can bring the technology to more people.

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Photo of Half Dome through trees in Yosemite National Park

A backpacker’s guide to staying on trail: Maps, GPX, and GPS devices

In this article, I’ll cover the navigation steps I take when preparing for a backpacking trip:

  1. Downloading offline Google Maps to navigate safely in dead zones.
  2. Printing out or purchasing paper maps.
  3. Making paper maps better by contacting park rangers with questions about your route.
  4. Plotting out a route on the free version of GAIA GPS and importing it onto a GPS device.

Download offline Google Maps

There’s always a dead spot. Or at least, that’s what you should assume and prepare for every time. For instance, there are a lot of dead spots near and within Yosemite National Park. Last year, I was picking up my backpacking permit from Big Oak Flat Information Station. I overheard someone telling the rangers that they were struggling with navigation because they didn’t have any service. The rangers told him that there are large dead zones outside of the Valley and the nearest verified area with service was in the Valley itself. Don’t be that guy. Be prepared!

Although larger parks like Yosemite have rangers that are always happy to help you, save yourself the stress and download the maps for the entire park or natural area you’re visiting. Better yet, download the maps for the full route you plan to take when going to and from a natural space.

Be mindful of the fact that offline maps do require large amounts of data and that they will expire eventually. Always update your offline maps before heading off.

Learn more: Download areas & navigate offline.

Get your paper maps ahead of time

Do not rely on rangers or information centers to have paper maps available. Every park does it differently, and the onus is on you to figure out how to get the resources you need ahead of time. For example, when I backpacked for the first time in Sunol Regional Wilderness Preserve, I received a park map with my Ohlone Wilderness Regional Trail Hiking Permit in the mail. That’s how East Bay Parks does backpacking permits. The National Parks system manages permitting via an online booking system (Recreation.gov). Your permit details are delivered electronically, so you need to get a paper map separately.

Do it yourself: This is a great option. There are amazing GIS experts who work for your local wilderness preserves, forests, and parks. Their goal is to give you as much information as possible so that you can enjoy your time outdoors safely…for free! Search for “maps” in the appropriate website and you’ll find some high quality, up to date topographical and/or trail maps to download. Print out the area you need and bring it with you.

Buy it: For more complicated areas like National Parks, I will purchase a large, foldable paper map because I do not have a color printer at home. I prefer having a color copy because I find them easier to read when there are a lot of map elements. National Geographic National Parks maps can be purchased directly from National Geographic or from local outdoor suppliers like REI.

Make your paper maps better

Always, always, always plan out your route if you’re going on longer journeys. Get out your pen and write where you’re camping first, second, third, etc. Trace the trail or highlight it. And then call ahead.

Annotated paper map on top of National Geographic map

Annotated paper map on top of National Geographic map

Here’s some geography-related questions I asked the rangers for my most recent trip to El Capitan in Yosemite National Park:

  1. Parking: I am planning on starting at the Tamarack Creek trailhead. Where can I park for two days near this trailhead?
  2. Water: I’m planning on taking the Tamarack Creek Trail from the Tamarack Creek trailhead to El Capitan. Has anyone been out on the this trail recently and observed water? Where is water typically available in this area during this time of year?
  3. Trail conditions: Have there been any bear sightings in this area recently? Where?
  4. Trail conditions: What’s the state of the trail? Are there overgrown areas, or areas where the trail is lost?
  5. Trail conditions: Are there any good, flat areas where people usually set up camp on this trail?
  6. Backpacking rules: How far out do I need to hike from the trailhead before I set up my camp? How far away from the trail do I need to be?
  7. Distance: Just to confirm, what’s the distance from the Tamarack Creek trailhead to El Capitan?
  8. Elevation: Just to confirm, what’s the elevation change between Tamarack Creek trailhead and El Capitan?

Now mark all of the answers to these questions on your map. I usually make notes of other important things on the back of my map, like permit numbers, weather forecasts, and the leave no trace rules (camp 100 ft from water, dispose of waste 100 ft from your camp).

Plot it out with GAIA GPS

I use the free version of GAIA GPS for trail mapping. AllTrails is also a great option and allows GPX file downloads. National Geographic trail maps can be downloaded onto GAIA for a yearly fee if desired, but that has not been necessary for my trips.

Generally, using GAIA is as easy as dragging and dropping waypoints and telling it to find the route between them (e.g. Waypoint 1 here is Tamarack Flat Campground, Waypoint 2 is El Capitan). GAIA is intelligent enough to pick up on defined trails in well-traveled areas. It also tells you the distance and elevation change of your route.

GAIA GPS map editing page

GAIA GPS map editing page

To export from GAIA GPS, click Export and select GPX.

GAIA GPS export menu

GAIA GPS export to GPX

Learn more: Videos and Tutorials.

Getting GPX onto GPS devices

If you’re getting into longer backpacking trips, it may be time to think about getting a handheld GPS device. I decided on the inReach Mini 2 from Garmin, a company that is sort of like the “Esri” of handheld GPS devices. Regardless of the brand, you’re probably going to be handling GPX files if you want to import a map onto your GPS device.

What is GPX?

GPX stands for GPS Exchange Format. Location data, including waypoints, routes, and elevation, are stored in tags that can be interchanged between GPS devices and software.

  • wptType stores individual, unordered waypoints.
  • rteType stores routes as ordered lists of route points.
  • trkType stores tracks as ordered lists of waypoints that describe a path.

For example, one route point along my route is stored as <rtept lat=”37.76213″ lon=”-119.769202″><ele>2154.5442911999635</ele><time>2022-08-03T04:23:16Z</time>.

Learn more: GPX Exchange Format.

How do I get GPX onto a GPS device?

Each GPS device has a slightly different software-hardware interface. Generally, you will export your planned route as a GPX file. Some GPS devices, like the Garmin Explore app, can be synced with software that allows for GPX imports. Other times, the GPS device must be physically plugged in to the computer. Find the tutorial page for your particular device and get hiking!

Learn more: How To Export Gaia GPS Tracks to Garmin – Avoiding Chores.

⛰️ Stay safe and happy hiking!

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