Impressions from 2009 ESRI Business Partner Conference

Palm Springs Palm Springs

The ESRI Business Partner Conference (BPC) is my favorite conference of the year.  To begin with, the timing and location are great.  Any excuse to leave Maine in March for Palm Springs is pretty easy to feel good about.  Beyond that though, it is a great opportunity to reconnect with folks that are serious about ESRI GIS.  Attendees of the Business Partner Conference have already made a significant investment in becoming capable GIS professionals.   These are folks that are already making a difference in the world by applying their trade craft to some of the world's more urgent problems.  They have made the journey to Palm Springs (many from the far flung corners of the world) to find ways to do what they do better.  It is an engaged and energetic community and I always come away from the experience feeling more energized and focused.  This year was not exception and I left Palm Springs yesterday with a sense that I had both enhanced my understanding of ESRI technology and expanded my relationships withing the ESRI community that will allow me to apply this technology understanding to more opportunities.

Technology

From a technology perspective, the focus at the BPC this year was on the impending release of the 9.3.1 versions of the ESRI product suite.  I would categorize the 9.3.1 release as an incremental release.  There is not a huge amount of sizzle here (with a few notable exceptions).  This release seems to have been focused on making substantial improvements at the core and addressing the important (if not sexy) issues of performance, scalability, and reliability.  For me, the technology highlights of the conference were:

ArcGIS Explorer build 900 - OK so this is the one really sexy piece of technology that will be released in conjunction with the 9.3.1 product suite.  ArcGIS Explorer build 900 represents a revolutionary step change in geospatial viewers.  Until now, ArcGIS Explorer (AGX) seems to have been struggling to keep pace with Google Earth (GE) and as new capabilities were released in GE the AGX team would try to release something comparable.  The release of build 900 turns that whole dynamic on its head.  This release shows great vision.  To begin with, AGX 900 explodes the "geospatial bookmark" concept and provides a wonderful blend of geospatial viewer with presentation tool.  Think MS PowerPoint on steroids.  You can create a whole presentation that is based on a sequence of spatial bookmarks with associated data sources with the appropriate cartography so that you can really tell a compelling story with the tool.  In the hands of an already gifted story teller like Bernie Szukalski (AGX product manager) the product just sings.  Additionally, you can package up any of the "slides" in your story (essentially a spatial perspective along with a package of cartography and data sources) and email that "slide" as a "Layer Package" to anyone else in your community so that they can see your specific visualization of the problem.  Finally, you can easily alternate between a 2D and 3D visualization of your problem in a highly optimized rendering experience.  The demonstrated end-user experience was tremendous.  I can't wait to get my hands on the Beta.  Jeff Jackson and Andy McDonald  have really outdone themselves with AGX 900 proving that product innovation and creativity are repeatable qualities given the right organizational environment.

ArcGIS Server Performance.  It is no secret that ArcGIS Server has earned itself a poor reputation when it comes to performance.  There are a lot of ESRI customers that have refused to migrate off of their ArcIMS installations only because ArcIMS has consistently out-performed ArcGIS Server.  As my friend Steve Segarra likes to say, "there is nothing more important in software architecture design than elegance....  except performance".  The ArcGIS Server team seems to have taken performance very seriously with this release.  I witnessed time and again sub-second refresh rates from ArcGIS Server with the kind of attractive cartography that you have come to expect from ArcGIS Server.  I will reserve final judgment until I get my hands on the final product, but my initial look at the new performance is very encouraging.

Microsoft Silverlight ADF. Last year ESRI got serious about supporting Adobe FLEX and now has a very mature FLEX ADF available for FLEX developers.  We have been Flash/FLEX developers for some time and love the work that Mansour and his team are doing with the FLEX ADF.  The addition of MS SilverLight to the family of ESRI application development frameworks presents some interesting new opportunities.  I think that for MS-specific server products like Exchange and Sharepoint, the availability of MS Silverlight to the arsenal may open up some interesting opportunities.

Business Analyst Server. This is not a new product to ESRI, but it is a bit of a new product to me so it makes my highlight list for this conference.  With Business Analyst Server, ESRI has packaged up a compelling set of transportation and demographic data, high-performance locators, and reporting capabilities into a single package designed to serve the needs of the commercial sector - specifically retail customers.  I was impressed with the thought that has gone into developing this package.  From the data, analysis, and technology perspectives, this is a pretty amazing product offering.  ESRI has never been all that strong selling to the commercial sector.  With the release of Business Analyst Server, the technology side of the house has delivered a very substantial offering.  It will be interesting to see now whether the sales side of ESRI can leverage this technology in the marketplace.

ArcGIS Online Content  ESRI is not new to the online map content business.  The ArcWeb Services model was very effective if not widely used.  For whatever reason, ESRI has decided to migrate that business model to the "ArcGIS Online" concept.  The news that got the most ink related to ArcGIS Online content this week at the BPC was the news that Microsoft Virtual Earth content will be available through ArcGIS Online very soon.  The much bigger story from my perspective is the news that Delorme's content will be available through ArcGIS Online very soon as well.  This is BIG news for anyone that does work outside the US.  Delorme has the best global roads data available in the world.  Period.  This is VERY good news for ArcGIS Online content users specifically and for the industry in general.  Great to see Delorme as a member of the ESRI business partner community.

Relationships

As important as the technology aspects of the BPC are to me, the most valuable part of the experience is in the relationships that I am able to establish and maintain at the conference.  Our overall relationship with ESRI is our most important business partnership.  The BPC offers the opportunity to build on and expand this relationship.  This year was a great year for us in this category.  We were able to expand our relationship with ESRI not only into new market areas, but also into other parts of the world.  The whole conference this year was valuable to me on this level alone.  Furthermore, I was able to establish new connections with other business partners (Delorme is now a business partner...  Go Maine!) and to meet other players in the industry like James Fee and Dave Bouwman whose blogs I follow on a regular basis, but who I had never met before.

All in all, the ESRI BPC this year was a great experience for me.  I learned a lot, reconnected with a lot of old friends and made some new ones.  In the bargain, I soaked up a little bit of warm sun which is in pretty short supply in Maine this time of year.  Count on me next year for a return trip.  I hope I will see you there.