Benefits of Cloud Hosting for Local Government GIS Departments

GIS is a rapidly changing and evolving technology, especially in the ArcGIS Enterprise platform, which requires version updates, offers new capabilities with each release, and sometimes requires organization to expand their infrastructure footprint. Local government IT departments have so much work to do that they can’t always keep up with the ever-changing GIS world.

Traditionally, a local government’s IT department is responsible for building and maintaining the organization’s in-house GIS environment hardware. This includes scoping out the work, purchasing and building the servers, installing the GIS software, and maintaining the infrastructure. This requires a good working relationship between the GIS and IT groups, which is not always the case.

Cloud hosting is a great way for organizations to get around these issues and have more control over their enterprise GIS.

What is cloud hosting?

Although the phrase “cloud hosting” is commonly heard in the IT and GIS worlds these days, it can be a bit confusing. In simple terms, it means that instead of having all the computer hardware and software you’re using sitting on your desktop, or somewhere inside your company’s network, it’s provided for you as a service by another company and accessed seamlessly over the Internet.

Cloud hosting services are flexible, scalable, and cost-efficient when building applications, websites, and other services. Because users can scale as needed, they are charged only for the services they use and do not pay for any unused capacity. This payment system makes cloud hosting a relatively inexpensive storage method.

Why should local governments consider cloud hosting?

Some benefits to cloud hosting for local governments include the following:

Scalability. Cloud hosting can be scaled up quickly (to add servers and resources to meet demand) or scaled down (to remove resources when not in use). The scaling up and down processes can even be automated using scaling policies that adjust capacity based on predefined metrics.

For example, if an emergency management application gets flooded with requests due to a natural disaster, cloud infrastructure makes it easy to quickly add virtual machines/resources. There is no need to maintain and pay for idle/unused physical servers (on the off chance you might need additional resources for a 1 in 100-year event).

Organizations can also set up a development environment that only runs during business hours or removes servers to scale down the environment during non-peak times. This leads to big cost savings.

Greater capabilities. Organizations can directly integrate and leverage the abundance of cloud SAS/IAS offerings. When GIS is in the cloud, organizations can take advantage of other cloud services and capabilities, such as system monitoring and alerting platforms, security offerings including web application firewalls, big data stores and data warehouses, Enterprise SQL solutions, real-time integrations, and queuing services like Apache Kafka.

Access to new technology. Organizations can more seamlessly evolve with the changing technology landscape and adopt and test new technology. Cloud providers are adding thousands of new services every year. Employees don’t need to be experts on each service or have the proficiency to deploy/administer new services from scratch on their own infrastructure when they’re in the cloud. They can easily test and try new technology and decommission it when they’re done.

Built-in uptime service level agreements. Uptime guarantees are built into services and infrastructure.

High availability. Organizations can design and deploy high availability systems more easily. Systems can have varying degrees of availability ranging from redundant/backup servers to deploying servers across data centers in different geographic regions. 

Cloud backup solutions. Organizations can take advantage of cloud native backup solutions, which offer a comprehensive approach to backups and disaster recovery.

Multiple cloud deployment service models. Some of the models to choose from include:  

  • Managed services. Organizations can completely offload administration of a GIS environment to a consultant. This frees up local government IT to manage other systems and puts the administration of the environment in the hands of cloud GIS experts.
  • Shared responsibility. Organizations take advantage of the cloud environment and cloud GIS consultants, but also maintain administrative control over the environment.
  • Self-managed GIS environment in the cloud. The cloud environment could be designed and deployed by a cloud GIS firm and then “handed off” to the client to manage.

Serverless application deployments. Organizations can deploy web applications using “serverless” cloud services and content delivery networks, which can offer significant cost savings and the greatest scalability/performance.

Although multiple cloud providers are available, two of the most popular ones are Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Which local governments have benefitted from cloud hosting?

Two counties in Pennsylvania now host their GIS environments in the cloud, one in Azure and one in AWS.

Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, was the first Pennsylvania county to move their GIS infrastructure to the cloud. In 2014, the county hired geographIT, a division of EBA Engineering, Inc., to design and build their GIS environment in AWS. Their Parcel Locator, a publicly available tool for searching GIS-based parcel information, is hosted in the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). The ArcGIS for Server environment, Parcel Locator, and cloud hosted environment are a significant paradigm shift from the county’s traditional IT and enterprise GIS services. The cloud has provided much more flexibility for scaling up cloud server resources based on demand, as well as flexibility to add and organize new map content in the Parcel Locator viewer.

Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, created a new enterprise GIS program in 2018. As part of the overall strategic effort to build their enterprise GIS system, Montgomery County decided to deploy the GIS architecture on cloud-based infrastructure. The county chose Microsoft Azure as the cloud provider and tenant, with virtual network and county network connections established. By taking advantage of cloud computing, Montgomery County now benefits from increased flexibility to scale the platform to accommodate increasing demand, as well as cost savings from only paying for the technology they need and use. geographIT designed the ArcGIS Enterprise GIS platform in Microsoft Azure, deployed the system, and helped provision and migrate services to the environment.

geographIT has also designed, implemented, and supported the ArcGIS platform on cloud providers for other local government organizations, including Schuylkill County, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Taskforce, the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management, and the Philadelphia Police Department. If you’re interested in learning more about how cloud hosting can benefit your GIS enterprise, give us a call today!

Stacey Smith, GISP, is the geospatial technologies and asset management department manager for EBA Engineering, Inc. She can be reached at 717.510.9870,, or on LinkedIn.



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Stacey Smith