Have you ever looked at a modern car engine? Its modular. Mechanics can often fix a problem by simply replacing modules. Computers, TV’s, solar panel on and on, we live ever more in a modular world. So what advantages does modularity bring to GIS software development? Let’s discuss.
The advantages of simple, modular GIS web apps
GIS applications were once built from the ground up. If a client had a problem to solve, a GIS development company would come in and build a solution from scratch. Often complex, expensive and time consuming, these custom solutions had many major drawbacks. Fixing bugs, extending and adding functionality were serious challenges.
In an effort to overcome these problems, a number of companies introduced GIS frameworks in the mid 2000’s. These provided a simpler way to generate GIS applications, without the need for ‘ground up’ development. Though these became popular they have proven expensive, tough to customize and many have not kept up with advances in technology.
Commercial off the shelf (COTS) GIS applications are relatively new. These are pre-built applications which are being used in part to help sell proprietary GIS platforms: “Buy a license or subscription to our platform and you’ll get a slew of apps for ‘free’.” COTS apps are a nice new addition to the world of GIS. They are focused, and many are easy to configure. Set up requires in-house GIS expertise. They are a good place to start. But with COTS apps you get what you get. Just like legacy GIS frameworks, extending and adding functionality to COTS apps is either impossible or very difficult.
Open, modular GIS frameworks are emerging as the next advance in GIS application development. These are sometimes called COTS+ frameworks.
Before we dig deeper, let’s step back and consider modularity. From Wikipedia:
A modular design. subdivides a system into smaller parts, that can be independently created .. A modular system can be characterized by functional partitioning into discrete scalable, reusable modules; rigorous use of well-defined modular interfaces; and making use of industry standards for interfaces. Besides reduction in cost (due to less customization, and shorter learning time), and flexibility in design, modularity offers other benefits such as augmentation (adding new solution by merely plugging in a new module).
In software terms, modules are often called widgets. The functionality of a GIS application is defined by which widgets are included in the application. Just like an engine, COTS+ solutions have a core; widgets can be added or removed to or from this core. I’m often reminded of the Transformers movies when I think about this modular approach: a data collection app can be transformed into a work order driven asset management app by simply switching out widgets.
Work Order Asset Managment Widget
Online-Offline Data Collection Widget
A COTS+ approach has many advantages: intuitive to use, ease of configuration, simpler to customize and extend, cost effective. COTS+ in many ways replaces older legacy frameworks. It also compliments COTS. If a COTS solution does not exist for what you need, or is not a complete solution, COTS+ is a great place to turn.
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