Man looking at clouds over the Rocky Mountains

Western states build a platform for storing GIS data

A consortium of Western states is now poised to store geographic information system data in commercial cloud computing environments to cut storage costs and improve efficiency.

The Western States Contracting Alliance (WSCA) and the National Association of State Procurement Officials, working in collaboration with the states of Colorado, Montana, Oregon and Utah, have awarded four contracts for GIS public cloud hosting services to Dell, Dewberry, Esri and Unisys. 

WSCA is a 15-state consortium that helps participants join in cooperative purchasing agreements that extend across multiple states. Two years ago, WSCA issued a request for information seeking feedback from vendors on the technical and financial feasibility of hosting GIS data and services supported by the individual states in commercial cloud infrastructures. The states had three primary objectives for considering GIS cloud services: cost efficiencies, flexibility and scalability, and reduction in staff support time.

“Part of what we learned in the RFI process was that [cloud hosting] was bigger than GIS,” said Robin Trenbeath, Montana’s geographic information officer. GIS has unique traits because the information is public, so it made it easier to move in that direction, he noted. But other apps or services are also ripe for migration to the cloud.

As a result, the WSCA contract for hosting services now goes beyond GIS to include general cloud hosting and infrastructure-as-a-service. So any government entity within the states’ various jurisdictions -- cities  towns, counties, tribal governments or even sewer districts -- can use the same GIS cloud contract to obtain cloud hosting services from the vendors, Trenbeath said. In addition, the contracts are open to other approved states and federal agencies. (The states in the alliance are Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.)

This is why the agreement includes two vendors that specialize in GIS – Dewberry and Esri – and two that specialize in infrastructure and cloud hosting – Dell and Unisys, Trenbeath said. This is not to say that Dewberry couldn’t perform infrastructure-as-a-service or GIS servers can’t be put in Unisys’ infrastructure. The aim is to give states an alternative, so they can select the best cloud provider for the tasks they want to complete.

Montana hasn’t moved any applications or data to any of the vendors yet, as states and vendors are finalizing their agreements. Then the implementation can begin, most likely be in the area of GIS, Trenbeath said.

Most states’ IT infrastructure is designed around transaction processing, and the high-availability and recoverability requirements of those types of applications might not be the same as the requirements for GIS processing. As a result, this more flexible environment could drive up GIS processing and data storage costs. However, the use of properly tailored cloud services could avoid unnecessary processes and improve cost efficiency.

 “With any new technology, you dip your toe in first,” Trenbeath said.  “We will start slow with GIS, then some general hosting, and move more aggressively as it fits.”

Trenbeath couldn’t say at this point what type of GIS data Montana would put in the cloud. “If I were to guess, I would say we would look at the delivery of Web services to the public,” such as giving access to property information via the cloud. The state has a comprehensive database of property ownership and that information is provided publicly now.

“I can see that certainly as a candidate to move to the cloud. Would we move the data out there too? I don’t know yet,” Trenbeath said.  A lot depends on Internet connections and network delivery for Montana, which is largely a rural state with limited high-speed Internet connections. “Our pipes are not as huge as other places.  As you send terabytes of files, we fill up our [Internet connections] quickly.” The cost of Internet connections are typically not a part of cloud hosting, Trenbeath said. An agency passing big data over those connections would have to take that into consideration.

Some tasks might be better suited for the state’s data center.

Sharing computing resources with other states and jurisdictions in the cloud could provide an excellent opportunity not only to share services, but also data with other states.  “We are always looking for opportunities to share data where appropriate,” Trenbeath  said, but because GIS data is location-based, other states' interest in that information is limited. 

Trenbeath said he could see sharing applications such as back-up and recovery. “We are certainly looking at doing that whether it is in the cloud or in our data centers.” Rather than sharing GIS data, Montana could share applications such as the one used to deliver the state’s property ownership information.  Colorado, Idaho or Utah officials could use that same application to deliver their own data to the public or other agencies, Trenbeath said.

The sharing of applications, resources and services is the wave of the future, saving each state money and time as well as prompting more efficient use of IT resources, he said. Demand has gone up, and citizens are expecting their governments to do more. “We can’t deliver all of that at a reasonable cost all by ourselves,” Trenbeath said.  “You have to collaborate."

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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