I’ve been a software developer and systems integrator since the ‘90s, and in that time I’ve seen both lasting trends and passing fads. Here I’ll mention some developments that are clearly established trends, followed by another that is very likely already becoming a new long-term trend that could dramatically impact the effectiveness—or possibly even the viability—of your organization.
The rise of integration platforms is another well-established trend. These platforms make it much easier to connect disparate applications and datasets across many different technologies and operating environments than with traditional programming alone, enabling organizations to pick and choose the products and services that represent the best-in-breed to fulfill their individual functions, while quickly connecting them together into a relatively seamless whole supporting the smooth and efficient operation of the organization. They often include coding frameworks and/or graphical dataflow languages as DSL’s. Popular examples include webMethods, Informatica, MuleSoft, TIBCO, Micorsoft BizTalk, IBM WebSphere, Oracle Integration, and Boomi. Web application development projects often involve at least some integration, making tools like these highly relevant.
Geographic Information Systems
Systems for processing and storing digital mapping and other geospatial data have existed as an isolated niche since the 1960s, but the advent of Google Maps in 2005 thrust Geographic Information Systems (“GIS”) into the spotlight. Since then, geospatial data and its applications have steadily grown more important for critical decision-making in both the public and private sectors. Businesses in particular now collectively hold huge spatial datasets, and many such organizations are only beginning to recognize that they must incorporate the insight these datasets can provide into their operational and decision support systems to effectively compete in the modern world. There are hundreds of spatial data formats and APIs in existence. Some are historical legacies that are still in wide use, and some are newer and more sophisticated to support the needs of current technological developments in sensors, big data, virtual and augmented reality, satellite and indoor navigation, and so on.
Integration + GIS
The final development that could easily become a new trend is the merger of integration platforms and GIS, given that both are of critical importance today. Unfortunately, none of the integration platforms discussed above are well-equipped to read or write data in these formats, let alone interpret or process spatial data in any meaningful way. In fact, the only integration platform with comprehensive geospatial support is FME, by Safe Software, which Dale Lutz and Don Murray founded in the 1990s to bridge the gap between GIS and Computer Aided Design (“CAD”) datasets. In the intervening years, they and their team have continuously enhanced and improved on their initial product to such a degree that no other integration product can touch it when it comes to turning spatial data into real value. And they’ve made sure FME also integrates non-spatial data and applications just fine. So these days, FME is a comprehensive data and application integration platform that has no equal anywhere. It also includes a graphical data-flow DSL that dramatically reduces the need for custom coding in traditional programming languages. Some FME solutions require no code at all. This low-code/no-code advantage is important because, in its domain, we’ve found the implementation of integration and automation workflows to take a mere fraction of the time that would be required to implement the same functionality in a traditional programming language. In my experience, I can produce an FME solution 3 to 5 times faster than the equivalent even in a highly productive dynamic language like Python. The productivity speed-up is even more dramatic when compared to programming in more labor-intensive languages like Java, C#, or C++! This advantage applies to workflow maintenance as well, with quicker maintenance of more intelligible visual workflows.
Better Than a Fourth-Generation Programming Language
For those of you familiar with the history and wide variety of programming languages, you can liken FME’s workflows to a fourth-generation language (“4GL”), which were an attempt to make coding and maintenance easier and quicker in specific domains, such as database manipulation and reporting. FME is like a visual 4GL, but its versatility lends itself to manipulation of all kinds of data, not just databases (geospatial and otherwise). It can handle file-based data formats, directory-based data formats, application interfaces (APIs), imagery and other raster formats, real-time and sensor data, and more! You can think of FME as a kind of a Swiss Army Knife for data and integration.
Why I Specialize and Push FME for Data Integration, Process Automation and Analytics
I have no ownership stake in Safe Software, but I promote only technologies and products I truly believe in. Throughout my career as a software engineer and enterprise architect, I’ve constantly sought the means to improve my productivity by adopting promising new development technologies and methods. This is why I often worked with 4GL’s in my early career, and it’s why I moved to Java as a replacement for C++ work in domains where 4GL’s didn’t apply. It’s also why I left Java after the turn of the century, dabbling in object-oriented Perl before discovering Ruby, Rails, Python and Django. And since I started focusing on geospatial solution development almost exclusively a decade ago, FME became my primary go-to technology. FME makes a great back-end for custom mapping web applications in Rails or Django as well, and FME will automatically generate simpler spatial data applications on the web and on mobile devices without the need to implement a custom application at all! And in my estimation, the customer experience with Safe Software is typically one of the absolute best in the technology industry. But it’s not just me who says that. Safe’s own customers tend to rate it very highly too: as of January 28, 2022, Safe Software has an overall rating of 4.7 out of 5 in the Data Integration Tools market, based on 29 reviews, and is consequently regarded as a Strong Performer.* (https://www.safe.com/gartner) We believe this is because FME has the required functionality for enterprise integration, but is not yet well-known enough to be placed in the upper right quadrant with the more established players. I’m willing to bet it’s only a matter of time!
Impact on Solution Architect and Developer Roles
All this productivity means a software or solutions architect can accomplish much more with a smaller team, or sometimes with no team at all. This tends to blur the dividing line between architect and developer roles, and indeed between leadership and implementation roles in general. I have led teams of up to 10 developers in the past, even with the productivity of Ruby on Rails and similar frameworks, but that is less common with FME. This fact brings us closer to Frederick Brooks’ ideal (from his classic work on software engineering and project management) of the software development team consisting of one developer surrounded by non-developer support staff–much like a surgeon with their team of nurses and other specialists–to avoid as much of the coordination overhead as possible. (The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering, 1975) Yet when collaboration is required, FME includes some powerful tools for making it as efficient as possible, including an exclusive visual dataflow comparison and merge function so multiple team members can work on the same workflow simultaneously.
So if you need sophisticated geospatial integration, process automation or the like, you really should look into FME. If your organization owns or otherwise works with geospatial data or applications of any kind, you can’t afford to ignore FME in blind allegiance to any of the more popular data integration platforms. And if you’re a developer or enterprise architect selecting tools that will enable you to be more productive, plus do the most you can with your available data and applications, you’d be a fool not to consider FME for the applicable portions of your solution(s). Conveniently, FME is typically less expensive than its competitors, with a variety of licensing options to suit any real-world business situation. So it should be relatively easy on the budget too, especially considering the productivity gains you’ll realize!
About Modern geoSystems
Founded in 2006, Modern geoSystems is a Safe Software Service Partner specializing in rapid and comprehensive geospatial data integration, automation, conversion, analytics, and application development for clients in multiple industries, including AECO (Architecture, Engineering, Construction & Operations), Commercial & Residential Real Estate, Energy, Transportation, Telecommunications, Insurance, and Hospitality. We often deploy individual engineers or small teams, depending on the scope and composition of a client’s needs. Kevin Weller, owner, is a Certified FME Professional and a Certified FME Server Professional with many years’ experience in enterprise architecture, cloud technologies, web applications, software engineering, and Geographic Information Systems. He is also a GIS bootcamp instructor helping to train the next generation of FME practitioners specifically for the AECO industry.
* Gartner Peer Insights reviews constitute the subjective opinions of individual end users based on their own experiences and do not represent the views of Gartner or its affiliates.