MapServer vs ArcIMS Comparison

A few years ago I spent some time researching the relative merits of two popular web-based map servers, MapServer and !ArcIMS. I posted the summary results of that research to a couple of places with a note saying that anybody who wanted the full results should contact me. Much to my surprise three and half years later I still get asked for them every month or two.

Since it's been so long, maybe somebody should review the situation and see what has changed -- and what hasn't. It won't be me. My job has pulled me in other directions, we aren't running any kind of mapserver anymore so my involvement in this question is minimal.

Anyway, the full respondant text is available at Feel free to pull whatever you want from that page and rework/update it here, which is actually the more appropriate place. I didn't want to just dump it here as the full text is about 100k.

--Matt Wilkie - 18 Feb 2004

Mapserver <==> ArcIMS comparison

20 Nov 2000

A few weeks I ago asked mapserver-users, esri-l, comp.infosystems.gis, and comp.soft-sys.gis.esri for comparitive comments on MapServer and !ArcIMS. (respectively, Full text of all respondants is available on request.

Thank you to:

   Andrea Goethals, University of Florida
   John Hockaday, Department of Environment, Australia
   Michael Kleih, Centro Comune di Ricerca-JRC
   Michael Anderson, Spatial Information Technologies, Inc.
   Chris Stuber, Silicon Mapping Solutions, Inc

Mapserver-users (MSU) responses were detailed and informative, while the other three forums responded with a resounding silence.

MSU unanimously acclaims MapServer as the better web-based gis map server, however it was pointed out the problem domains of MapServer and !ArcIMS overlap while !ArcIMS has a broader functionality set. In the words of Micheal Anderson:

    "...I would like to point out that the scope of what ArcIMS and 
    MapServer attempt to do is different. ArcIMS has several 
    components designed to do things that MapServer alone doesn't 
    address. This includes html and applet based viewers for the client 
    as well as several components on the server. The components on the 
    server include the application server, manager components, and the 
    spatial servers. The spatial server is what renders the images, 
    handles spatial queries, extracts features, etc. The manager 
    components allow you to build "Map Services" (map files), create 
    web sites using the map services, and publish the sites.  The 
    application server allows you to distribute pieces of your 
    application over multiple machines and pool several machines to 
    handle increased loads.  It also allows you to use COM and Cold 
    Fusion in your application as the "connector" between the web server 
    and application server. ArcIMS has two additional components that 
    start and stop processes and delete images on a schedule.

    MapServer alone is only analogous to the spatial server, but the 
    other features can be added using other tools. Other than being 
    able to use fewer data formats, MapServer is a better spatial server 
    than ArcIMS's. By using an existing web application server you can 
    get the additional functionality with a minimal amount of work."

After several attempts, I can't reduce the length of Micheal's message with out losing good info, so here is the rest of it:

    "...By using an existing web application server you can get the 
    additional functionality with a minimal amount of work. I am using
    Zope, which is Python based, as my application server. It is also 
    Open Source. It is a much better application server than the ArcIMS 
    component. In addition to allowing you to distribute your 
    application, and pool machines, it also handles user authentication, 
    and gives Unix like permissions to files, URLs, and operations. It 
    also handles publishing the sites easily. I haven't gotten around to
    using it to make the map files or the web site though. I use ArcView 
    to make the map files and have someone else make the web site. Zope 
    does allow me to share single html and JavaScript files across 
    multiple web sites, which makes maintenance a lot easier. It is also 
    possible to use Zope as a connector to ArcIMS so a single 
    application could use both MapServer and ArcIMS (as well as other 
    GIS engines). I am also aware of a Java based application server 
    called Enhydra that is also Open Source. I have installed it, but 
    haven't had much time to use it, so I can't really say what it can 
    do. There are also commercial application servers available like 
    IBM's WebSphere. You could probably do a lot with Cold Fusion as 

    "That said, here is my 2 cents on the advantages and disadvantages 
    of ArcIMS:

   "Advantages of ArcIMS
   * distribute applications over multiple machines
   * Native integration with the Geography Network. MapServer can be made to work within the geography network.
   * Includes software to handle routine tasks like making the map  services (map files), designing web sites, etc.
   * Supports more data formats - especially raster
   * Better support for storing spatial data in RDBMS through SDE
   * You don't have to try to sell a relatively unknown product  (MapServer) and philosophy (Open Source)

   "Disadvantages of ArcIMS
   * speed (even running mapserv as regular cgi it is much faster)
   * resource hog
   * limited OS (no Linux)
   * less stable. My ArcIMS experience is on NT so that may be more a reflection of the OS than ArcIMS?.
   * poorer support
   * source code unavailable
   * cost"

All respondants felt MapServer's support (via the user community) and documentation is much more useful than ArcIMS?'. It was noted that often questions re:!ArcIMS went completely unanswered. A couple of people made the point that although Mapserver's documentation is better there are still some gaping holes; it is expected the newly formed documentation committee and mailing list will help address this issue.

Several said MapServer is easier to install and the maps are easier to maintain.

Most everybody said that MapServer is faster* although theoretically this should not be the case since Mapserver is a CGI while !ArcIMS is a Java app. (*nobody claimed !ArcIMS is faster, just not everybody made a speed comparison)

Those that made reliabilty comparisons felt that !ArcIMS is still buggy and undependable.

The one* plus !ArcIMS seems to have over MapServer is the GUI that allows development of the interface and equivalent to map files. There is an ArcView extension and an Arc AML which make producing Mapserver map files easier but they are still in development. There is also talk of developing a standalone map builder but I'm not sure how far along that project is yet. (*where the problem domains overlap)

There were incidental threads comparing MapServer to MapXtreme, and JShape where MapServer also came out on top.

Thanks to everybody who responded and a note to those who didn't: I'm quite willing to do this again. I'm disappointed nobody came to bat for !ArcIMS. I was hoping to be able to summarize a broader range of opinions. Than again, maybe it is simply true that MapServer is better than !ArcIMS.


Matt Wilkie * GIS Technician * Yukon Renewable Resources GIS <br>

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Last modified 8 years ago Last modified on Jan 27, 2009 2:19:06 PM