"Who's in charge of the IT now...?"

Thomas Fraser September 6, 2018

As LinkedIn helpfully reminded me, it has now been a year since we founded Loxodrome (which has flown past), and we thought it might be interesting to write a blog post looking back at our first year in business, in particular our experiences of no longer working together in an office with all the equipment and budget of a big IT department!

Early on we realised that the cost of buying our own servers that we could run ArcGIS Enterprise on, along with the various software licences that we would require would be prohibitively expensive for a start up with limited cash. Also, not having a fixed office location meant that we would have to find somewhere to locate and then access them.

However, as we had already set up our Office 365 environment, using Microsoft Azure did lend itself well to being a cloud based service that we could build upon, especially as they offer a £150 in Azure credits to use within 30 days, which gave us time to test and evaulate it.


"I know where I'd rather be working"

-Nick

We set up our server infrastructure on Azure as a pay as you go subscription for the virtual machines that can be started and stopped as required. They also, rather helpfully, automatically shut themselves down at 7.30pm to prevent unnecessary expense, if we forget to stop them.

So, where are we now (the technical stuff...)

As of September 2018 our Azure platform is as follows:

  1. 1 VM hosts ArcGIS Enterprise (Portal and ArcGIS Server) - built using the ESRI VM image available on Azure.
  2. 1 VM with open source applications (GeoServer, Apache Solr, Neo4j), along with FME and a SQL Server Express instance for testing – not a business critical database as the server is not always online.
  3. 1 VM with Logi Info (more on this in a forthcoming blog post where we tie all the components together to do some really cool stuff...)
  4. Azure SQL DB hosting ArcSDE, this can be accessed by the ArcGIS Server virtual machine (as it is on the same vnet [virtual network]) and the client workstations running local installs of ArcMap and Pro, as their IP addresses are allowed through the firewall to the database.
  5. To connect to and interact with the services on the servers there is a point-to-site VPN which enables the workstations and laptops to connect to the virtual network and access the resources, such as ArcGIS Server Manager or GeoServer from a client machine, and not having to remote desktop onto the server itself. This was probably the most complex bit of the Azure setup (and the most expensive).
  6. Shared storage is provided by Azure File Storage which is mapped as a common drive letter on all the servers, workstations and laptops (this doesn’t actually require the VPN being active). Whilst this is a perfectly acceptable solution, one drawback is the fact that the amount of storage provisioned is low (50Gb) and it is not the fastest -apart from when accessed from the virtual machines – but does allow a cost-effective way to share files that do not lend themselves to being stored in OneDrive or in SharePoint online. It can also be expanded as and when the need is there.

The diagram below is a simplified representation of our configuration (and is something that would have been invaluable to see a year ago as an example of a small company set up!).

So what have we learned?

For a small company such as ours with some recycled desktop hardware that is capable of running local installs of ArcMap/Pro along with the other applications and integration tools we work with, when it is coupled up to cloud based services/virtual machines has allowed a good deal of collaborative working and development . We now only pay for office/meeting room space when we need to get together for a day – and our current choice is a barn conversion that opens out onto an orchard and nature reserve!


In terms of the Office applications, the amount of functionality that comes with O365 Business Essentials is incredible. I know that people will say that there are similar services now from other vendors (such as G Suite from Google), but working with a familiar software suite, including SharePoint, has got us up and running quickly, and allowed us to investigate things like the ArcGIS Maps for SharePoint app, or embedding Story Maps into SharePoint pages. Which opens lots of interesting possibilities.….

So, what isn't so good?

As with most IT budgets, there is never enough money to buy the toys that you really want to play with, and the pricing system in Azure can get complex and then at the end of the month you get a larger bill than you might have been expecting!

So what next?

One key challenge we are facing with some of the Portal for ArcGIS software (as well as a few other apps) is that the servers are not currently joined to a domain, so don’t have a fully qualified domain name, nor can you get a proper SSL certificate if it doesn’t have one.

“But why don’t you just use the Azure Active Directory Domain Services? Problem solved!” Because, to put it simply – see the ‘So what isn’t so good’ section above. It costs money, and could potentially add another £80-100 to our monthly Azure bill. It's also not available in the UK South region (as yet), so would have to be set up in another region with a seperate connection between the virtual networks (more money). What could be a more cost-effective solution (and this is what I need to investigate) is to have a Reserved Instance (RI) virtual machine – and not a high spec one – that can remain online 24/7/365 which will act as our domain controller, which could cost as little as £11 extra per month.

We’ll probably blog about this again, as we see the way that people work is changing, and employers will have to support more remote/flexible working, as people (myself included) don’t want to spend an ever-increasing amount of their lives - and salary - commuting to their place of work.

Tags: Azure Cloud GIS

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