Spread the love

ArcGIS is often referred to as a platform, but isn’t everything a platform these days? To answer the above question, this article will explore various platform definitions. It will then give an overview of ArcGIS, before indicating what kind of platform ArcGIS really is.

What is a Platform?

To answer this question, let us look at the dictionary definition of platform, most shared articles on the topic, and a few key articles.

Oxford Dictionary

Oxford Living Dictionaries defines platform in the following manner.

I have highlighted the relevant parts in the context of this article, and can add the following comments.

  1. A computing platform acts as raiser and reduces the distance between the technology and the needs of developers and end-users. Building or using an App has never been easier.
  2. Platform computing is a modern standard in IT, but middleware on top of hardware and OS has become the foundation for application development.
  3. Social media platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube have given us a voice and are increasingly used for political and social advocacy.


I did a quick search with BuzzSumo on most shared content using Platform as the keyword and here are the results:

It is sobering that people are more interested in fishing and politics than IT, but this confirms that the Oxford Living Dictionaries definition resonates with the populace. Not to be discouraged, I did to do another search on technology platform and here are the results:

Not surprisingly Facebook and Google top the results, albeit not in an entirely positive manner. Is there something sinister about technology platforms?


Thanks to Google and other tech companies we can find almost anything on the Internet. I discovered two interesting articles that present compelling views on what a platform is.

The Platform Stack: For Everyone Building a Platform… And For Everyone Else

Sangeet Paul Choudhary might have written this article a few years ago, but it is still a very good read.  I recommend you read the entire article, but here are a few key points.

Sanjeet has a different and interesting view on what a platform is:

A platform is a plug-and-play business model that allows multiple participants (producers and consumers) to connect to it, interact with each other and create and exchange value.

This definition can be unpacked by looking at its 3 key elements:

  1. Business model, not technology: He does not dispute that technology underpins the platform, but what prevails is the business model.
  2. Plug and play: External participants can connect to the platform in an easy manner as developers, partners, and consumers.
  3. Interactions: The core role of the platform is to enable interactions between the participants in a manner that creates reciprocal value.

The article goes on to illustrate that platforms have the following 3 essential layers:

  1. Network/Marketplace/Community Layer: Social media platforms explicitly connect users with one another, while other platforms enable them to trade items or share information.
  2. Infrastructure Layer: This is the layer built by the platform provider. The layer could be dominant or thin, but has limited value unless users and partners create value on top.
  3. Data Layer: Every platform uses data in some form as curated content or data aggregated from the users. In some cases the value of the platform is entirely in the data.

The degree to which each layer dominates varies on how the platform stack is configured. This concept is illustrated with case studies of well-known platforms and an example is included below.

IaaS, PaaS and SaaS Terms Clearly Explained and Defined

This article explains the difference between Packaged Software, IaaS, PaaS and SaaS from the Microsoft’s perspective. I came across it when writing “What is Cloud Computing”.

I must admit that cloud service offerings are increasingly blended, so users pick and choose what they need without bothering with the semantics. I picked the beneath diagram from the article, since it aptly illustrates the composition of a cloud computing stack.

The part that has been highlighted presents a framework for the development and deployment of applications on a given operating system. In essence, this part forms the core of the platform from a technology perspective.

What is ArcGIS?

ArcGIS continues to be regarded as a family of products, since traditional users continue to use it as a product for making maps. To explain the more recent ArcGIS platform perspective, I will discuss the platform in terms of capabilities, benefits and best practices.

ArcGIS Product Family

When asked what is ArcGIS, people might answer that it is a GIS software manufactured by Esri. ArcGIS is however not a product, and can at best be defined as a collective brand name for a family of software products. The family includes ArcGIS Pro, ArcGIS Enterprise, and ArcGIS Online and Apps like Collector for ArcGIS, Story Maps and Operations Dashboard for ArcGIS as its best-known members.

ArcGIS Platform Capabilities

References about ArcGIS as a platform are very common, but Esri appears the only source of information that seeks to define the platform. On the Esri website ArcGIS is tagged as The Mapping & Visualization Platform with the following capabilities:

  1. Spatial Analytics – This ranges from visualizing and measuring patterns and relationships, to overlay and distance analysis, and predictive modeling.
  2. Mapping & Visualization – Create, share, and consume interactive high-quality cartographic maps.
  3. 3D GIS – Convert data into 3D GIS to analyze and solve real-world problems.
  4. Real-time GIS – Monitor and analyze live data feeds from sensors and networks for more timely decisions and response.
  5. Imagery & Remote Sensing – Collect, process, analyze, manage, and share imagery from satellite, aerial, drone, and full motion video.
  6. Data Collection & Management – Collect, integrate, geo-enable, store, access, and share your data efficiently and securely.

ArcGIS Platform Benefits

Esri further defines the ArcGIS platform by what you get in addition to the core platform with its capabilities. Here is how their website describes it:

  1. Apps – A suite of apps that helps you get the job done in a browser or when using a device in the field.
  2. Data – Demographics, imagery, customer data, and authoritative maps on thousands of topics.
  3. Developer Tools – APIs and SDKs for building custom web, mobile, and desktop apps for mapping, visualization, and analysis.
  4. Training – Online and classroom training that fits your schedule, background, responsibilities, and life experience.
  5. Services – Access to the largest community of mapping professionals, where you can share, chat, and collaborate.
  6. Community – Access to the largest community of mapping professionals, where you can share, chat, and collaborate.
  7. Security – Our guarantee that ArcGIS is secure and trustworthy while meeting your privacy and compliance needs.
  8. UC Passes – Attend the biggest, most relevant GIS event in the world — the Esri User Conference.

ArcGIS Platform Best Practices

Esri has published a White Paper named Architecting the ArcGIS Platform: Best Practices. It provides best practices and implementation approaches to help maximize the value of the ArcGIS platform in the context of organizational goals.

The best practices are associated with an ArcGIS Platform Conceptual Reference Architecture diagram which is shown below.

I have summarized the best practices themselves as follows:

  1. Applications Implementation Strategy – First configure out-of-the-box apps, then extend templates and apps, and finally build custom applications using the Web API and SDKs.
  2. Apply IT Governance – Key elements to include in an IT Governance strategy are software change management, data governance, and workforce development.
  3. Automation – Leverage automation resources (e.g. scripts, models) to improve operational efficiency, consistency, and productivity.
  4. Distributed GIS – Model a distributed GIS with multiple nodes after the organization’s structure with systems of record, insight, and engagement.
  5. Enterprise Integration: Application Patterns – Choose a geocentric, geo-enabled or composite pattern of application integration to achieve the greatest business impact.
  6. Environment Isolation – Create separate and distinct production, staging and development environments in isolated computing environments to minimize negative business impacts.
  7. Essential Patterns of a Location Strategy – Leverage the six essential patterns (e.g. analytics) as a framework to track GIS utilization in a business context.
  8. High Availability – Use test plans, monitoring systems, duplication, load balancing, and other strategies to minimize service downtime of critical GIS deployments.
  9. Infrastructure – ArcGIS infrastructure components include data and storage in a file geodatabase or external system, server-side capabilities for visualization, analysis, and data management and SDKs/APIs as server-side access points
  10. Load Balancing – Use load balancing, by software or hardware devices, to balance system utilization, reduce risk, simplify service delivery, and improve security of backend servers.
  11. Managing Identities – Effectively manage use identities and associative credentials to define and secure user access to maps, apps, data, and analysis.
  12. Project Prioritization – Maximize success in implementing the ArcGIS platform by prioritizing projects that balance business benefits with challenges.
  13. Publication Strategy: Geospatial Content Delivery – Deliver content in a manner that meets consumer needs and expectations while securing internal systems and data.
  14. Real-time GIS Strategy – Tap into data feeds from sensors, devices, and social media for real-time monitoring and analysis to quicken decision making and responsiveness.
  15. Security – Meet security/privacy requirements via use authentication and authorization, hardware and software filtering, data encryption and system audits and analysis.
  16. Workforce Development – Invest in workforce development to equip users with the knowledge and experience to effectively use and expand the ArcGIS platform.
  17. Workload Separation – Maximize system performance and reduce risk by isolating and allocating appropriate resources to the various GIS functions and workflows.


The question “What is a Platform?” from different perspectives that are summarized below:

  1. General View – a platform is a place where you voice your opinion and engage with others.
  2. Business View – a platform is a scalable business model with network benefits that connects participants and allows them to interact and transact.
  3. IT View – a platform includes a framework for the development of applications on top which leverage the platform capabilities.

The question “What is ArcGIS?” can also be answered in different ways, especially when we consider what we have just learned:

  1. Product View – ArcGIS is a family of software products for GIS and Mapping.
  2. Technology View – ArcGIS is a platform with extensive server capabilities, a wide range of network benefits and a framework for building applications that deliver business value.
  3. Business View – ArcGIS connect producers and consumers of geographic data and applications in a seamless manner to create and exchange value.

It is my opinion that the product view of ArcGIS still prevails due to Esri’s long dominance of the GIS market and its large traditional client base. Esri is working hard to promote ArcGIS as a technology platform, but the absence of a vibrant and open marketplace with plug and play applications remain a deterrent to its uptake.

Are you using ArcGIS? Let me know if you use it as a product/toolbox or a platform for building business applications. Not using ArcGIS, but having an interest in GIS? Let me know how I help you. Just leave a comment below, or contact me by sending a personal message.