May 17, 2010
Open Source Extends it Reach
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Susan Smith - Managing Editor

by Susan Smith - Managing Editor
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Industry News

Open Source Extends it Reach

By Susan Smith

Open source has really proliferated in recent years and is used quite extensively by the military and now utilities and municipalities. Well known desktop applications such as GRASS GIS, OSSIM and operating systems such as Linux, Apache Software Foundation and Red Hat, which offers platform, middleware and enterprise virtualization software, have been around for awhile. Newer web mapping solutions such as MapGuide Open Source, Mapbender, MapBuilder, deegree, MapServer and OpenLayers populate the landscape, opening up the possibilities for open source built applications that can be ready far earlier than most commercial software release cycles, and make it possible for more users to
develop their own applications.

Among the first adopters of open source were federal and national governments, and now, utilities and municipalities are following suit. Besides costs, what are some of the pluses and minuses of this technology?

Apache Software Foundation

As a mature open source initiative, the Apache Software Foundation provides organizational, legal, and financial support for a broad range of open source software projects. According to the website, the Foundation provides an established framework for intellectual property and financial contributions that simultaneously limits contributor's potential legal exposure. Through a collaborative and meritocratic development process, Apache projects deliver enterprise-grade, freely available software products that attract large communities of users. The pragmatic Apache License makes it easy for all users, commercial and individual, to deploy Apache products. Formerly known as the Apache
Group, the Foundation has been incorporated as a membership-based, not-for-profit corporation in order to ensure that the Apache projects continue to exist beyond the participation of individual volunteers. Apache is more than just people sharing a server, they are a community of developers and users.

Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo)

Geoff Zeiss, director of technology, Peter Riecks, senior product manager, Mark Christian, product marketing manager for Autodesk talked about the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo), an umbrella organization for open source geospatial.

In early 2006 Autodesk got started with open source, and became one of the key sponsors of OSGeo, and put significant funding behind it initially.

Autodesk started by contributing two pieces of code, one leveraging the other, but they were two separate projects, one being the MapGuide Open Source Mapping Server environment and the other being the underpinnings of MapGuide in terms of data access technology, Feature Data Objects (FDO). The GDAL libraries, which are data access libraries from Frank Warmerdam became wrapped in FDO, and FDO supported many other data sources. “Based on the output from the reporting engines on downloads from the OSGeo websites, we have seen in excess of 100,000 downloads of MapGuide Open Source, and I would also say in excess of 80,000 downloads of the FDO data access technology in those four
years,” said Riecks. “So it is a significant channel to market for something that has the Autodesk name behind it. It is clearly all in the domain of the community to maintain that code base and Autodesk is a contributor like many other community members around these two pieces of code or technologies.”

Right now there are over 20 projects that are part of OSGeo which include MapServer, GeoServer (the Java version of MapServer), OpenLayers (a popular open source project used all over by commercial and non-commercial users), OGR (a library of code used to read a large number of different file formats used by ESRI), Autodesk, Safe Software, which is used by just about anyone in geospatial industry for reading different raster formats and different vector formats.

OSGeo is growing fast, adding two or three new projects in the last three months, one of which is PostGIS which is actually used by Google Earth and Google Maps.

There are approximately 24 chapters of OSGeo worldwide, the total number of lines of code now is over 11 million.

“In the past twelve months, 270 different developers have committed code to an OSGeo project,” noted Geoff Zeiss. “That's probably larger than any inhouse developers' inhouse development team.”

Since last October, 2,000 more subscribers have joined OSGeo mailing lists.

Ordnance Survey is now a sponsor of the OSGeo, and other national mapping agencies are showing a great deal of interest in the foundation. One interesting OSGeo project is GeoNetwork which is basically a framework for the National Spatial Infrastructure (SDI).

For Autodesk, supporting OSGeo solved a big problem. It was difficult to get out product releases such as web mapping product fast enough. Like most large companies in the software business, the period of time it takes to get a new release out is usually at least a year.

“We thought that the traditional approach we use for AutoCAD and most of our other products was simply not fast enough for the web mapping area and that's why we became such a big supporter of the Open Source initiative,” said Zeiss. “We've contributed a lot of that 11 million lines of code, MapGuide, FDO and the coordinate system stuff. The coordinate system stuff was the most recent contribution that we made to OSGeo.”

The annual open source conference FOSS4G will next be in Barcelona, on September 6-9.

The 11 million lines of code contributed to OSGeo has been contributed by different sources, and it is living code, not legacy code, according to Peter Riecks.

Frank Warmerdam, developer of OGR (part of GDAL library) has contributed a significant amount of code. OpenLayers code was contributed by Chris Holmes.

The number of active developers has greatly increased. Two to three years ago, the number of active committers on Apache was around 1,000, and there are now ¼ of that number working on OSGeo projects.

In 2008 Autodesk contributed a third project which is right now in incubation status, which is a holding pattern for most projects when they get into OSGeo. OSGeo as a community would like to see adoption, involvement and momentum behind projects before they get accepted as official projects. Currently Autodesk's contribution is the metacoordinate reference system project is now in incubation. The coordinate system and projection capabilities of all Autodesk's geospatial products was acquired some years ago, and they are open sourcing that element in order to increase the momentum of that capability and “bring a level of that consistency to not just our products but other
products in the market,” said Riecks. Safe Software uses that same coordinate system engine. Anyone doing coordinate system or projection work between Safe Software System and Autodesk and other systems that are using it now will have very consistent if not identical results.

“We have also recently seen a very interesting new development which is a completely modern web services interface into MapGuide,” said Zeiss. Typically in the web services world the standards are either SOAP or Rest. A developer has developed a Restful web interface for MapGuide.

Autodesk has seen much endorsement of their technology from other vendors. For example, Safe Software has fully endorsed the FDO technology and it's now totally integrated and embedded inside FME. One Spatial in the UK are embedding FDO in their Spatial Studio and other products to allow their customers to reach into other data sources other than the Oracle Spatial Foundation that their products are built on.

Mapping location vendor Pitney Bowes MapInfo put a little FDO wrap on to plug it into their web mapping environment, MapExtreme.

Federal and national governments were among the first adopters of open source, according to Autodesk. Now utilities are more interested, where three or four years ago, they wanted to stick with commercial vendor solutions. “I would say within the U.S. federal government, probably the military is the biggest user of open source, and that would include open source geospatial,” said Zeiss. “And there are OSGeo projects that are used within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Also we're seeing municipal governments, pipeline companies and utilities are starting to use open source as well.”

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