Google Earth Builder

Productizing Server Farms for Storing and Processing Geospatial Data

Fig. 1

Google Earth Enterprise images of Otsuchi, Japan, before the 2011 tsunami.

Fig. 2

Google Earth Enterprise images of Otsuchi, Japan, after the 2011 tsunami.

Fig. 3

Imagery published from Google Earth Builder read directly into Google Earth Public Globe courtesy of NT Concepts.

Fig. 4

The iSpatial application displaying feature collections on a Google Earth globe, courtesy of Thermopylae Sciences and Technologies.

Fig. 5

GEB displaying text, image and video data collected in the field by a smartphone, courtesy of Navagis

Fig. 6

A heat map showing customer foot traffic overlaying store location with sales data, courtesy of Navagis.

Fig. 7

The iSpatial application running on a Google Earth globe, courtesy of Thermopylae Sciences and Technology.

Pale Blue Dot LLC
Portand, Ore.

Google Earth Builder (GEB), which Google released last fall, enables private companies and government agencies to store and process their geospatial data on Google’s huge server farms and display it through Google Earth, Google Maps, and applications on Android phones. Like a company that buys a building much larger than it needs for its own operations and then leases some of this space, Google is productizing some of its computing capacity by licensing GEB.

Meanwhile, to maximize the benefits of this new product for their clients’ specific needs, more than a dozen Google Enterprise Partners around the world are developing custom applications that run on top of Google Earth’s public application programming interfaces (APIs). Early adopters of GEB include the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), the giant Australian utility Ergon Energy, and satellite imagery company GeoEye.

Acquiring and Managing Imagery

Typically, large organizations that deploy GEB have a direct relationship with imagery providers, such as GeoEye or DigitalGlobe, and task them to procure the specific imagery they require to create their own globe, says AJ Clark, the president of Thermopylae Sciences and Technology (TST). “The whole concept of using a private Google Earth globe is that you have some kind of access to imagery that the rest of the world doesn’t and you want to maintain some degree of control over it.” GEB gives users complete control as to who is allowed to view the imagery that they upload to Google’s cloud. However, licensing Google Earth’s software is not the same as licensing all of Google’s imagery. Often people confuse the software that makes Google Earth’s globe available in a Web browser or on a desktop with the imagery it contains, but those are two separate products.

The first in-depth story about plans for Google Earth Builder appeared in Imaging Notes’ Summer 2011 issue, prior to their Fall 2011 launch. This article is a follow-up to that story.

GEB allows users, who may not have much background in GIS or imagery, to easily upload their raw raster or vector data and create layers that they can open in Google Earth, explains John-Isaac Clark, TST’s Chief Innovation Officer. “You can’t do those things right now really easily as an end user through some of the higher-end GIS tools.”

Another advantage of GEB is that it enables users to import imagery of many different types and then export that imagery to other proprietary software, such as Esri, via OGC services, such as WFS or WMS. To take imagery out of GEB, you draw a polygon around the area that you want to extract and export it to a portable globe. “That’s what nobody else is doing,” says AJ Clark. “They turn imagery into a commodity.”

Google Maps for Business

GEB is one of four products in Google Maps for Business that “provides enterprise organizations with the tools they need to bring mapping into their day-to-day decision-making process,” says Dylan Lorimer, GEB’s product manager. The other three are Google Maps API for Business, Google Earth Pro, and Google Earth Enterprise, which enable them to add spatial context to their Web sites and business applications, display some of their own data on top of Google’s basemap and imagery, and build and host their private Google Earth and Google Maps layers, respectively. “Our strategy with Maps for Business is to bring Google’s simple-to-use, intuitive geospatial technology into these business settings, with appropriate enterprise controls and services,” says Lorimer.

We process all kinds of data — imagery, vector data, 3D models from LiDAR, terrain models, and so forth. I think you’ll see that, as customers request it and it makes business sense, we’ll certainly expose more and more of that functionality within GEB.

–Dylan Lorimer of Google

The Business Model

Google does not want to be seen as a provider of imagery, but of the capability to manage it. Having invested massively in server farms, it wants more customers to put data onto its servers and pay to access them. “That’s where they see an economy of scale and a competitive advantage in the future,” says AJ Clark. Therefore, Google licenses GEB to its customers as a platform for use with their own mapping data. “Customers pay only for the amount of storage they require and the amount of consumption of their published maps,” says Lorimer. In other cases, data providers such as GeoEye are using the platform to commercially distribute their data.

Will Google further productize its server farms? “With GEB, we are absolutely committed to exposing the entire geospatial infrastructure that we used to build our consumer Google Earth and Google Maps, where it makes sense,” says Lorimer. “We process all kinds of data — imagery, vector data, 3D models from LiDAR, terrain models, and so forth. I think you’ll see that, as customers request it and it makes business sense, we’ll certainly expose more and more of that functionality within GEB.”

Google extends its reach through its partners. For example, in the Asia-Pacific Region, Dialogue Information Technology has about 30 account executives that operate across more than 2,800 Australian organizations, says Glenn Irvine, the company’s National Practice Manager for Google Enterprise. “So, we provide them with sales reach and we talk daily with the Google team here in Australia about current opportunities.”

Custom Applications

While Google software developers wrote all of the code for all of Google’s Maps for Business products and continue to write updates, many Google partners work with Google Enterprise customers to build custom services on top of those products. They listen to their needs, decide whether a Google product exactly supports those needs, and then build value-added products, Lorimer explains. Therefore, Google gave its partners access to GEB a few weeks before launching it commercially, “because we wanted them to be able to port some of their applications to our APIs,” he says. Several of these applications were on display at the annual Google Earth Federal Users Conference in early March. Organizations that buy these applications also benefit from the power of Google’s cloud, says Lorimer. “It’s all the folks who typically would use geospatial data and who invest in GIS. GEB is an enterprise product, so its success is certainly tied to the success of our customers.”

“We have written a number of applications that integrate directly with the Google platform, whether it is the security and authentication service or visualizing the maps and Earth layers or other data pieces or a custom search,” says Chris Powell, director of geospatial programs at NT Concepts.

Navagis, which has been a Google Enterprise Partner since 2008, works solely with Google’s Geo products, primarily with federal government agencies, large engineering firms, utilities, oil and gas companies, and telecommunications companies. “We work a lot with GEB as well as Google Earth Enterprise,” says David Moore, the company’s founder and president. “We focus on creating custom products for customers around GEB. We also do support and services for GEB for companies that are setting up a GEB account for themselves. We’ll come in, we’ll help them out and teach them how to use it, load all their data, all that.”

“We also have a product that we’ve developed called Mobile Recon, which allows you to collect data in the field and synch it up with GEB.” Two years ago, Navagis gave tablet devices loaded with Mobile Recon to contractors who were responding to a huge oil spill in Michigan. They used it to collect the locations of the oil and synch them back up to a Google account in real time, so that the data could be analyzed and used to direct the response.

Dialogue Information Technology, too, integrates GEB into existing systems. For example, says Irvine, a utility that manages all of its assets in its enterprise resource planning (ERPs) system may want to be able to present that asset information through Google Earth. Additionally, the company provides initial implementation and training, and assists its clients with their licensing requirements.

NGIS became a Google Earth Enterprise partner about 15 months ago, when it was assisting several of its clients with their GIS requirements. “All had a common theme, which was to find a tool that enabled the wider community of stakeholders, both internal and external, to view the GIS data,” says Chris Erikson, the company’s director of sales and marketing. “The heavy lifting is still done in Esri, MapInfo, SmallWorld, Oracle Spatial, those types of systems. We weren’t looking to replace them, clearly, but we saw an opportunity for Google to provide the internal and external users of our clients’ data with a way to view their GIS layers. Google Earth Builder is getting GIS data out of the GIS department and into the hands of all stakeholders and employees.”

“We run a help desk that acts as a liaison between our clients and Google,” Erikson says. “We resolve most troubleshooting internally, but Google certainly provides a vast amount of support resources also, so our role depends on each client’s support requirements. We find that, in most cases, once Google Earth Builder is deployed, it is almost plug-and-play.”

TST, launched in 2007 by a group of former government employees, military personnel, and Silicon Valley software developers, focused on challenges around the defense and intelligence community. “We saw an appetite within those customer bases for the same kind of commercial technology that they had access to when they went home and planned their night out or traveled to a different city,” says AJ Clark. “So, we would look at a capability like Google Earth and ask, what are the obstacles to a customer using this more predominantly in their mission?”

In 2008, he recalls, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security asked TST to develop for it a capability to better visualize all of its security vehicles and personnel who were moving around in a high-threat area, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, or Yemen. While TST’s initial project was focused on using the Google Earth desktop product, soon the company recommended creating a system that would enable many people to see all of the data in Google Earth through a Web browser.

Within Google Earth, AJ Clark explains, a piece of software called Google Earth Fusion allows an organization to fuse to a basic Google Earth globe — Google calls it a Blue Marble — all of its latest imagery, which can then be displayed either in a Web browser or on the Google Earth desktop software. “It is very good at fusing terrain, imagery, and data that don’t change very often,” he says. However, some data — such as the location of a moving vehicle — is not well suited to be fused to that globe. “You need some other means of dealing with dynamic data like that. We ended up building an entire product, called iSpatial, around that concept.” It was then adopted by other government agencies, he says, including the Social Security Administration, the Air Force, the Army, and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

TST, which released iSpatial about three years ago, is now making it available as a hosted solution. This allows people who may not be GIS experts — such as county officials responding to a tornado or a flood — to create content, such as lines, geometries, or features, and then upload them to GEB, share them with others, or add them to a collection, explains John-Isaac Clark. “It’s making it a lot more accessible to the everyday user who is already used to interfacing with Google Maps and Google Earth.”

NT Concepts, Navagis, Dialogue Information Technology, TST, and other value-added resellers of Google’s products also act as geospatial subject matter experts for their customers and troubleshoot technical and administrative issues with Google on their behalf. “The APIs within GEB are continuing to evolve and our engineers are interacting with the Google team on a weekly basis with respect to several projects where we are using GEB and leveraging those APIs,” says Powell. “There are new features and functionality each day that we are trying to incorporate into custom applications. One that we’ve implemented is a single sign-on service, which would allow somebody from within their corporate environment to use their active directory or their security and authentication mechanisms to authenticate with the Google authentication system.” Similarly, Irvine says: “There is a lot of liaison from a technical point of view, where our engineers will be talking to Google engineers around specific requirements or a unique case that a client might have.”

Ergon Energy and GeoEye

Ergon Energy, Lorimer says, is “a good example of how energy and utilities companies see the benefit of using our cloud for all of their data to build common operational maps that they can share out with their users” — both in the field, using mobile devices, and at the office, using the Google Earth client from their desktops.

GeoEye is working closely with Google to make it possible for someone who wants imagery of an area to simply draw a square around it and ask for it. The message would go through GEB to GeoEye and the customer would receive a response through the Web browser with the price and quality of the image and the option to buy it, explains AJ Clark. “GEB will be great for customers because it allows them to build a subscription imagery service using it, where they can push-button publish their processed imagery into the hands of their users and just as easily revoke access,” says Lorimer. “So, they built an annuity term-based subscription model, where in the past they’ve provided data via FTP or on DVD.”

Other uses of GEB

Other users include many national, state, and local governments. A company that sells a software package that can be used for a “call before you dig” underground infrastructure application is using GEB behind the scenes to store all the data in the cloud and then expose it through an API within their application, Lorimer says.

GEB can be used to provide a common operating picture for disaster management. It has been used in the past ten natural disasters, says Lorimer. For example, during Hurricane Irene, one of Google’s government customers used GEB to display imagery taken over the coast of North Carolina on a public map that was used for disaster response. In Australia, which has had significant floods, cyclones, and brush fires in recent years, some state agencies are also looking to Google Earth Enterprise and/or GEB environments to manage that common operating visualization picture for managing disaster declarations and claims and organizing communities’ responses, says Irvine.

From Google Earth Enterprise to GEB

Google Earth Enterprise, which Google released with the original acquisition of Keyhole well before GEB, allows organizations to build globes and maps on their own networks, behind their firewalls, and, if needed, disconnected from the Internet. This is one reason it is still used by many government organizations, especially defense and intelligence agencies, which are reluctant to expose their networks to the Internet or are prohibited by law from doing so.

However, deploying Google Earth Enterprise requires a much greater investment and background knowledge in IT infrastructure than GEB. “Many of the organizations with which we work may spend $500,000 just on hardware, where if you use GEB you don’t have to spend any money on hardware, because Google provides all that,” says Moore. “To use a Google Earth Enterprise model, you have to be familiar with servers, hardware platforms, and Linux,” Powell says. “In some cases, to be proficient, you also need to have a pretty good understanding of geospatial processing, geospatial data formats, pixel size, resolution, and data projections — because these are all areas in which common errors can occur in importing, hosting, and styling data.”

By contrast, he explains, with GEB you can upload files into Google’s cloud-based environment much more easily and process them much more quickly. A Google Earth Enterprise deployment also requires a huge amount of storage. “Some of our clients have well more than 100 terabytes of storage online within their Google Earth Enterprise environment, managing their globes and maps, on a protected client environment.”

Additionally, Google Earth Enterprise’s license caps the number of users who may hit a server to 1,000 per year. By contrast, GEB, which resides on Google’s cloud like Google Earth and Google Maps, has no such limit. It allows multiple levels of users to access the data, while still enabling the organization to protect it at the appropriate level. “You could envision an organization like the Department of Homeland Security or FEMA using GEB to share geospatial information with thousands of relief workers or humanitarian assistance or disaster recovery folks,” says Powell.

NT Concepts became a Google Earth Enterprise partner in 2006 and was the first one to contract with the U.S. federal government, says Powell. It has been deploying Google Earth Enterprise solutions to support many federal government clients, including the Army, the Air Force, and the Fire and Aviation Management group of the U.S. Forest Service. This last agency has been using for years a Google Earth Enterprise solution and a network link KML service to maintain a globe and overlay on it dynamic information on forest fires and the aircraft that are responding to them, he says. NT Concepts is now investigating how their client might port this application to GEB. “This currently is a hybrid project, where we are still relying on our underlying Google Earth Enterprise system to manage and visualize the data, but we are now experimenting with how we can bring in additional layers from GEB,” Powell concludes.

Google Earth, launched in June 2005, expanded by orders of magnitude the number of people who view aerial and satellite imagery and who use basic GIS functions, such as turning layers on and off and measuring distances. GEB expands that reach further, by making it much cheaper and easier for organizations to share with internal and external users their investment in GIS data and in dynamic data feeds from sensors.

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