Do we choose a open source or closed source system? It is a well-known point of discussion in IT, and in this the GIS world is no exception. From our customers, we regularly get the question: is it best to choose open or closed source GIS? On this page, we answer these and other frequently asked questions about open source GIS solutions.

Open source or Closed source GIS?

What are the advantages of using an open source GIS system?

At Tensing, we are convinced that a closed source GIS system like ArcGIS is more suitable for larger organisations than an Open Source GIS system. That said, we too recognise that Open Source GIS systems offer a number of advantages. We list them for you:

  • Using open source GIS software is free of charge. You pay no licence fees.
  • For training purposes, Open Source GIS software is very suitable because it is free of charge. This lowers the threshold for experimentation.
  • You get access to the source code of the software. You can therefore adapt the software to your own needs, provided you have (or get) the expertise to do so.
  • Most Open Source GIS software is supported by an active community that is constantly looking for ways to make the software better. This keeps the software evolving.
  • Because Open Source solutions are based on open standards, this makes data exchange with other data sources easier.
What are the advantages of closed source GIS system (such as ArcGIS)?

The advantages of a closed source GIS system are at odds with the disadvantages of an open source GIS. We list the advantages of a closed source system for you:

  • For very advanced GIS analyses, you really do rely on closed source GIS systems. To get everything out of 3d visualisations, geoprocessing and analyses, you need ArcGIS. Currently, there is no open source GIS system that offers functionalities at the same level.
  • There is structural technical support. Dependence on the software developer is an advantage in this sense: there is a responsible party to assist you when you get stuck. With Open Source software, you rely on people or parties who did not write the software themselves (such as forum members) for this, whom you cannot point to with an SLA or any other form of ultimate responsibility.
  • The ArcGIS documentation is very comprehensive. This can help you shorten the learning curve. With many Open Source systems, the documentation is a lot more concise, leaving you more reliant on trial and error.
  • The user interface of Open Source GIS software is often less intuitive and user-friendly than that of ArcGIS. This also makes your learning curve steeper.
  • Open Source GIS software generally contains less standardised solutions.
  • ArcGIS monitors the reliability and security of its systems, with an open source GIS you have to keep an eye on things yourself. The question is whether you want to bear that responsibility as an organisation (or whether you prefer to be sure everything is in order).

Industry-specific choice?

For what type of organisation is an open source GIS the best solution?

You can weigh the pros and cons of both open and closed source GIS differently for each industry. For some types of organisations, an open source GIS can be a very good solution:

  • For small businesses and startups. Does your organisation work with geographical data, but can't spare a budget to perform these analyses? Then an Open Source GIS is a logical choice.
  • For training. For training where geodata is an afterthought rather than a main issue, an Open Source GIS can be the answer. After all, experimenting costs nothing, while students can conduct instructive experiments.
  • For non-profit organisations. In this case, too, the cost aspect prevails.
  • Organisations that hold the open source philosophy in high regard. It is not so much an advantage or a disadvantage, but there are of course organisations that attach great value to open standards. In that case, an Open Source GIS system is a no brainer.
For what type of organisation is a closed source GIS the best solution?

Tensing recommends larger organisations and/or those where data security is of extra high importance to choose ArcGIS. This offers a number of advantages:

  • You can make use of highly advanced GIS functionalities.
  • ArcGIS offers industry-specific data models and functionalities honed based on best practices.
  • ArcGIS offers more data and system integration capabilities with other data sources than open source GIS software.
  • Esri offers very comprehensive support for training and education. This offers benefits for both the individual GIS user and the employing organisation. By gaining certifications, the employee builds his or her CV and the employer reaps the benefits of the knowledge gained.

Everything you need to know about Open Source GIS systems

What are the most widely used open source GIS software packages?

There are a lot of Open Source GIS packages available. Of these, QGIS and GRASS GIS are the most widely used, making them biggest competitors to ArcGIS Pro.

What is the difference between ArcGIS Pro and QGIS?

The general differences between Open Source and closed source GIS systems also apply in the comparison between ArcGIS Pro and QGIS. In addition, there are some specific differences that are relevant:

  • ArcGIS Pro has more functionalities, more industry-specific solutions and also has a very extensive range of plugins and extensions. Especially for industries where GIS is central to many business processes, these are very relevant advantages.
  • QGIS has a fairly simple user interface with a very short learning curve. Incidentally, QGIS differs from other Open Source GIS applications in this respect. The learning curve is therefore less steep than that of ArcGIS Pro.
  • The 3D capabilities for visualisation and analysis are much more advanced in ArcGIS Pro than in QGIS.
  • ArcGIS Pro offers more geoprocessing capabilities using tools built into the software.
  • Both geographic information systems support scripting and automation. In ArcGIS Pro this can be done with Python, in QGIS it can be done with R and Python.
What is the difference between ArcGIS Pro and GRASS GIS?

There are also some specific differences between ArcGIS Pro and GRASS GIS that may be relevant when choosing between the two geographic information systems:

  • The interface of GRASS GIS is more complex and thus the software has a steeper learning curve than ArcGIS Pro.
  • GRASS GIS has a modular architecture with more than 500 modules. This architecture offers advantages and disadvantages. The trade-off between these advantages and disadvantages depends mainly on the size of the total system set up. The larger the total number of modules used, the more likely it is that maintenance will be too time-consuming and the greater the risk of performance problems.
  • ArcGIS Pro offers specific modules for almost every industry. GRASS GIS is less comprehensive in that respect, but it does have some specific themes and functionalities on which the software offers above-average analysis capabilities: hydrological modelling, landscape ecology and image analysis.
  • Both geographic information systems offer possibilities for scripting and automation. In ArcGIS Pro, this can be done with Python, in GRASS GIS with Python and their own language: the GRASS shell scripting language.

Using open source data in ArcGIS

How can I integrate open source data into ArcGIS?

Government and research institutions and data portals offer open source data that may be relevant to your own GIS project. It is possible to use this open source data in ArcGIS. To do so, follow these steps:

  1. Download the data in a format compatible with ArcGIS (such as shapefiles, GeoJSON or CSV with geographical coordinates).
  2. Import the data into ArcGIS. To do this, go to 'File' > 'Add Data' and navigate to the location where the data is stored. Select the desired files and click 'Add'. The data will now be added to your ArcGIS project.
  3. Make sure the coordinate system of the imported data matches the coordinate system of your ArcGIS project. If necessary, you can convert the coordinate system of the data using the 'Project' tool in ArcGIS.
  4. Adjust the symbology in ArcGIS to display the data in a way that allows you to analyse the desired data.
  5. Optional: is the data not sufficient to do the desired analysis? Then combine the open source data with other data sources.
What are geopackages?

Geopackages are an open, platform-independent, standards-based data format for storing, sharing and exchanging geographic information. This format was developed by the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) and is now widely accepted and supported by Esri (among others).

Geopackages combine both raster and vector data in a single file, simplifying the management and exchange of geographic data. The format uses SQLite, a lightweight and self-contained database engine, making it easy to integrate into various applications and systems.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of geopackages compared to shapefiles?

The use of shapefiles has been commonplace in the world of geographic information systems for decades. From Tensing, we recommend a more contemporary alternative to our clients: geopackages. This is for several reasons:

  • The word geopackage actually says it all: all geographic information (e.g. attributes and spatial indexes) is in one file. With shapefiles, this data is spread across multiple files. This makes management more labour-intensive.
  • Geopackages support both vector and raster data, while shapefiles only support vector data.
  • Geopackages use SQLite, a lightweight and self-contained database engine, which provides better performance and efficiency in storing and retrieving data compared to shapefiles.
  • Geopackages have no file size limitations, while shapefiles have a 2GB limit.
  • The column names have limited size and length in shapefiles. With geopackages, you don't have this restriction.

Do shapefiles then have no advantages over geopackages at all? If you look at it from a functionality point of view, not as far as we are concerned. If you are working with legacy GIS software, geopackages may not be supported. There is also the factor of habituation: shapefiles have been around since the early 1990s, so for some GIS users it may be a big step to say goodbye to this file type.