Workstations or PCs for GIS? The long memory of the Internet

Over the past decade, different people either hailed or criticised the growing inability to forget in the digital age in which we are living. Logging on to Google Dashboard and seeing every single search that I carried out since 2006 is rather scary – especially as there is no guarantee that if I ask to delete my web history, it will be also deleted from Google servers – just anonymising the information which is not much, really. An interesting point of view on the virtue of forgetting in today’s digital world is available in Viktor Mayer-Schonberger’s recent lecture at the RSA .
And then there is all the public information about you that is already on the open web and that is going to be there for as long as the servers and the web continue to be around. While looking for my earliest internet trails, I came across a posting to the usenet group comp.infosystems.gis from 1994. Back then I was working on a large-scale GIS project for the Israel Electric Corporation and, as far as I can recall, I was asked to write a briefing about the direction that we should take regarding the hardware and software platforms that would be used by the client in the roll-out of the system, which was designed for IBM RS/6000 workstations.  The requests that I sent to the list and the discussion are summarised in a posting that is still accessible on Google Groups – so anyone can find it and read it …

In terms of internet memory, it does expose certain aspects that I’m now much more aware about – such as my control of English back then. Glossing over the grammar and spelling mistakes, the analysis makes interesting reading from 15 years perspective.

Firstly, it is interesting to note that the need for high-end computing in terms of operating systems and hardware for GIS remains a relevant issue. See, for example Manifold GIS’s use of 64-bit operating system or the issue of graphic capabilities and the use of General Processing of Graphic Processing Units (GPGPU) in GIS and Remote Sensing packages such as Geomatica. Another indication of the continued need for processing power is illustrated in the description of ‘who might need this?’ for high-end workstations – although in 1994 no one in PC Magazine ever mentioned GIS.

However, for the absolute majority of end-users who are using GIS for basic map making and processing, this is not true anymore and many are using standard desktop or laptop computers quite well. Over the next few years, as more of the processing migrates to the ‘cloud’, the number of GIS users who need high-end machines will continue to decline. In 1994 the expectation was that most users will need a workstation, whereas very soon they will happily use a low-powered netbook.

Secondly, it is interesting to see the changes in data sizes – I note in the text that 1GB data caused us difficulties in backups and the local network (10BASE-T). I recall complaints from the rest of the company, which was running mainframe systems with millions of alpha-numeric operations, when we ran performance tests because of the bandwidth that GIS processing consumed. This aspect of geographical information handling is still challenging, usually not at the local level – even for large-scale processing, the cost of storage is so low that it’s not a problem. However, for the people who manage the backbone of large-scale applications, say Yahoo! Maps, this is still an issue – I assume that video, images and maps are now major consumers of bandwidth and disk storage that require special handling and planning.

Thirdly, there is a lesson about ‘disruptive technologies. The PC was one such disruptive technology and, even over a decade after their introduction, PCs were not comparable to workstations in terms of memory, processing, multitasking and networking. The advantage of workstations was clear in 1994. Even as late as 1999, when we ran the Town Centres project on Sun workstations, there was still an advantage, but it was disappearing rapidly. Today, UNIX workstations occupy a very small niche.

This is an issue when we think forward to the way GIS will look in 2015 (as the AGI Foresight study is doing) or 2020. Some of the disruptions to the way GIS operated for many years are gathering pace, such as the move to software and data as services where organisations will receive the two bundled from a provider, or using more crowd sourced information.

So sometimes it is useful to come across old writing – it makes you re-evaluate the present and consider the future. At the same time, it is only because I forgot about the post that it was interesting to come across it – so Victor Mayer-Schonberger is correct that there is a virtue in forgetting.

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mukih

Professor of GIScience, University College London

One thought on “Workstations or PCs for GIS? The long memory of the Internet”

  1. “However, for the absolute majority of end-users who are using GIS for basic map making and processing, this is not true anymore and many are using standard desktop or laptop computers quite well. Over the next few years, as more of the processing migrates to the ‘cloud’, the number of GIS users who need high-end machines will continue to decline. In 1994 the expectation was that most users will need a workstation, whereas very soon they will happily use a low-powered netbook.”

    Altough this is true in the context of today, looking back, it is interesting to note that what we would call a low powered machine today, was faster than any workstation back in 1994!

    I also often wondered about the expanding data volumes that are involved in GIS. Altough some proportion of this continued growth can be attributed to disappearing storage and processing constraints, enabling the liberal or even inefficient recording of data, it always struck me that data seems to grow regardless, all the while the human world and human processing capabilities have remained the same. I wonder if data will continue to grow and saturate increasing processing capability, or if there will come a time when data will stop to grow along processing power?

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