Douglas County is Nebraska’s most populous county with approximately 500,000 residents. The county’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) department provides government agencies and the public with municipal data related to zoning, property boundaries, political boundaries, utilities, infrastructure, and public safety. This information is distributed through the county’s website and online applications.

In late 2010, the Douglas County GIS department started exploring replacement options for its existing on-premises web servers. Although the department focuses on GIS, all of the employees also have basic infrastructure experience, so the county’s IT administrators allowed them to determine their own solution. One of the department’s primary concerns was maintaining a strong focus on GIS projects and avoiding the distraction of IT management. In addition, the department had to ensure that it could continue to use its preferred products from GIS software and services developer, ESRI, an Advanced Technology Partner in the AWS Partner Network (APN).

The department soon learned that Esri has collaborated with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to offer its ArcGIS for Server software from the cloud. Mike Schonlau, GIS Coordinator for Douglas County, explains, “We trusted Esri and its strong relationship with AWS. We were also familiar with the AWS name and trusted its stability, which is a big issue. So, we tested it out, spun up an instance and went through the learning process. We started to see benefits, especially in terms of flexibility. It was also easy for us to understand the cost-effectiveness of the pricing,” Mr.Schonlau goes on to say.

After this short testing phase, the department made AWS its primary production environment for its web server and geo database. To populate the database in Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3), the department used the AWS Import/Export service, which involved shipping a disk containing a very large amount of vector and mapping data. AWS then transferred the disk’s data into Amazon S3 in less than a week’s time. The department utilizes Amazon S3’s traditional upload mechanisms when it needs to move smaller amounts of data and the third-party Dropbox application for data sharing.

The web server, running from Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), provides map tiling and compute power for up to eight web apps and the associated imagery datasets stored in Amazon Elastic Block Store (Amazon EBS) volumes. For example, the Omaha Lead Database app generates geographic information about lead hazards and cleanup activities.

The GIS department is also currently using its AWS infrastructure to test new methods for mobilization, including an application that will allow field workers to upload photos and other information in real-time from mobile devices.

Mr. Schonlau notes, “The single biggest benefit of AWS is flexibility. It is so easy to spin up a server of any kind. This allows us to provide improved services more quickly because testing is painless and doesn’t cost much at all. This makes updating simpler and allows us to experiment with new solutions.

We are easily able to scale so we can expand our data storage quickly and easily (i.e. add 2Tb for a new set of imagery). The reliability has been excellent. We haven’t had a single reliability issue in 18 months. Our time to market for our applications is much improved and that is a direct result of having the freedom to spin up a test instance as we need to deploy new apps and upgrades. We are seeing some cost savings, but more importantly, is the newly expanded capacity and flexibility we have achieved by moving to AWS.”

He goes on to say, “AWS allows us to manage the GIS department infrastructure autonomously. We are also currently supporting up to eight web applications and other services and are mobilizing existing and future apps for greater productivity.”

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