Impossible to Ignore - Understanding Cloud Services

Posted to Esri in the Digital Utility Group
image credit: ID 171468472 © Joerg Stoeber |
Pat  Hohl's picture
Director - Electric Industry Solutions, Esri

Pat Hohl, PE, is Esri's director of electric industry solutions. He was a pioneer in the use of GIS for electric utilities. He has over 35 years of experience in utility engineering, technology...

  • Member since 2018
  • 138 items added with 197,898 views
  • Jan 27, 2021

This item is part of the State of the Industry 2021 SPECIAL ISSUE, click here for more

I couldn’t wait to get my first car – I wanted the capabilities it offered. I had one option - save up the cash to buy a vehicle and then maintain it. Now, leasing is a popular option to outright purchase. Likewise, many choose ride-share services over getting their own car at all.

Similar forces in technology buoyed cloud computing as a trend for utilities. As a result, cloud services are being further boosted by many remote activities resulting from COVID-19.

Cloud solutions hold great promise for users:

  • Reduced up-front investment
  • Rapid deployment
  • Reduced maintenance burden
  • Seemingly unlimited scalability
  • Unprecedented resiliency

These capabilities take different forms and come with new terminology. Organizations that use cloud computing often use a mixture of services. Here are several key concepts with a focus on what they mean to you.


This is the traditional baseline – you have the responsibility to purchase, house, install, secure, and upgrade both the computer hardware and software needed for your business systems. There is no cloud element here – it’s all you.

You buy the car, you drive it, park it, maintain it, replace it. You might be tempted to “drive it until the wheels fall off” to really “get your money’s worth.” If you keep it for too long, it may become hard to find parts –the parallels to legacy computer systems are obvious.

IaaS - Infrastructure as a Service

With IaaS, you run software that you control using a cloud provider’s compute or storage resources in their data center(s). You access those virtual machines from the web.

In the car analogy, you rent or lease vehicle(s) rather than an outright purchase. You drive it. You work out maintenance options with the leasing company. A new car, or several cars for a sudden need, can be provisioned in minutes. You pay for what you use.

For Esri customers, ArcGIS Enterprise runs well in a cloud provider’s virtual environment.

SaaS – Software as a Service

SaaS, aka web-based software, hosted software, or on-demand software is the cleanest for the user. This is what most people think of as “cloud apps”. As an example, you might be familiar with Microsoft Office web 365. In this model, a software company hosts its application in cloud data centers. The software or app is accessed over the web by smart devices. Users never worry about an upgrade – they just use the app they need on their device of choice.

You meet your transportation needs by subscribing to a car service which is available 24/7. You don’t buy or lease a car, carry a driver’s license, or even know a good mechanic. If you need to carry many people or go in style, don’t buy a limousine just use one for the day. You can’t choose the exact make, model, and color you want - you work with what the service provides. However, the service is designed for your needs and is normally more than adequate. You stay on public roads - no ad-hoc off-roading from the car service.

For Esri customers, ArcGIS Online makes billions of maps each week all around the world. Many people were exposed to this SaaS potential by the popular Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard. (Example of utility dashboards)

PaaS – Platform as a Service

PaaS is not focused directly on end-users but rather provides building blocks for developers. It provides a suite of services creating a platform from which to build. These services handle the underlying complexity providing developers a jump start to create powerful solutions with their domain expertise. A large utility might even build their own solution from this platform.

These building blocks are not adapted to the cloud but are instead designed to be cloud-native. This makes it possible for the software to run better in the cloud than it ever could on-premises.

For ESRI customers, ArcGIS is the location platform that provides base maps, geocoding, and other robust PaaS services for anyone that wishes to develop spatially aware apps.


A cloud-native approach goes beyond IaaS and SaaS. The software is written to take full advantage of cloud features and options. These features simplify maintenance and magnify scalability and resilience by organizing and compartmentalizing functionality in advanced new ways. As a result, business solutions can operate more reliably and at a lower cost than ever before.

For ESRI customers, ArcGIS Enterprise supports cloud-native functionality across popular cloud platforms.

Wrap Up

When I took over field operations at the utility, we had an old and unreliable truck fleet. It had been easier to repeatedly wait another year, than budget for new line trucks at $300k+ each. I started leasing replacements at a levelized cost, on a planned replacement cycle, with maintenance built-in. That was a big improvement in cost structure and capability.  

Similar dynamics are at work for the vital information systems running utilities. Cloud services offer very attractive capabilities that are impossible to ignore. Reducing calendar time, staff, and the capital necessary to add or update functionality is an obvious win. Leveling costs – win. Improved resiliency – win. Scalability to surge resources during a storm – win.

Each utility must balance its needs, resources, and security to find the optimal solutions. For some, this is on-premises. For others, it includes a cloud component, or maybe a hybrid environment. Because location is fundamental to every utility workflow, most utilities rely on GIS. Across the spectrum of cloud services, ArcGIS delivers location technology that matches your needs, including modern cloud architectures.

For more information about how ArcGIS Enterprise supports cloud-native functionality across popular cloud platformsvisit our website.

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Robert Lilley's picture
Robert Lilley on Feb 8, 2021

Interesting analogy Pat. However many utility companies are quite vested in their cars and have some very good drivers. You never really know what kind of drivers you'll get with your limousine and whether it will simply stop in the middle of the highway; especially when some of the GIS companies out there are trying to replace the engine on newer models. Sometimes being able to do an oil change and swap winter tires yourself is less costly than paying a team to figure out why the check engine light is on!

Pat  Hohl's picture
Thank Pat for the Post!
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