What is ArcGIS?
What is ArcGIS?

ArcGIS is a system for working with maps and geographic information. It is used for the following:

  • Creating and using maps
  • Compiling geographic data
  • Analyzing mapped information
  • Sharing and discovering geographic information
  • Using maps and geographic information in a range of applications
  • Managing geographic information in a database

The system provides an infrastructure for making maps and geographic information available throughout an organization, across a community, and openly on the Web.

The ArcGIS System
ArcGIS is about making, using, and sharing maps and geographic information across the Web for many purposes.

ArcGIS is an online geographic information system for using maps and geographic information everywhere—on desktops, in mobile devices, and in Web browsers. Various types of clients can be connected to a web of GIS services, providing information from thousands of GIS and mapping organizations worldwide.

You can work with the system using a range of clients—GIS desktops, Web browsers, and mobile devices that are used to connect to and work with maps and geographic information services. These services can be hosted in a range of settings:

  • On a local computer (and as files on disk)
  • Published as GIS Web services for use within an enterprise
  • Published and shared in the cloud

Each GIS service can be defined to be accessible only within a specific workgroup or organization; within a small, well-defined user community; or publicly on the open Web.

GIS is for everyone

People in many different roles and with many levels of GIS experience work with a shared set of maps and geographic information using ArcGIS. They can access maps using ArcGIS Desktop software. They can also interact with the system using no GIS software—by using browsers, mobile devices, and Web application interfaces (REST, SOAP, OGC, and so on) to access and work with online GIS and map services. These information publishers determine who can access and use their information (for example, only those in a small workgroup, members of an organization, participants in a focused community, or anyone with a Web connection).

GIS professionals use advanced desktop software to build geographic databases and perform spatial analysis. These users have the role of creating and managing geographic information. They also use ArcGIS Server to publish and share their content as ArcGIS services.

Many other types of users access Web maps and applications that are created and shared by ArcGIS users on the Web.

GIS includes maps, applications, people, and services

In ArcGIS, you work with maps, applications, people, and services.


Maps represent geographic information. As with all maps, GIS maps contain strong cartography, but they are much more than printed paper maps. GIS maps also contain the geographic data (point, line, and polygon features) used to build the map along with analytic tools to derive interesting results. A GIS map may also contain raster, terrain, or other specialized geographic data.

ArcGIS maps have a number of important characteristics:

  • They have a cartographic representation.
  • They can include feature, raster, and terrain data.
  • They may be editable, allowing you to compile new information.
  • They are composed of map layers, which can be combined and used in different ways.
  • They may contain the results of analysis models and queries into specialized information systems.
  • They are interactive, allowing you to reach through the map into richer information and tools.

GIS maps bring information to life. In ArcGIS, ordinary people work with maps using standard Web interfaces and tools. Any ArcGIS user can open and work with Web maps, accessing and further analyzing information contained in the map.

Read the topic How maps are used in GIS for more information on the role of maps in GIS.


ArcGIS Desktop users work with and compile maps and geographic information, which can be shared as Web maps.

Using ArcGIS Desktop to author and publish rich GIS content

Desktop users play an important role by creating the GIS maps and information, which can be shared as Web services using ArcGIS Server. These are combined and shared in Web maps that provide the primary mechanism for how larger audiences use and experience GIS.

Web GIS applications allow everyday users to work with geographic information through a specialized Web map interface designed to support a specific task or activity. This is useful because not everyone in an organization needs to interact with a comprehensive, professional GIS interface. Applications are built with ArcGIS that provide simple interfaces for accessing maps and their associated data using Web browsers and mobile devices.

ArcGIS includes a number of Web map application options.

Web map applications for ArcGIS
Rich maps can be created and published using ArcGIS Desktop and ArcGIS Server. These Web maps are discoverable as Web services that can be used to assemble composite Web maps (mashups), which can be used in any ArcGIS client such as those shown here.

All levels of clients can participate in online GIS communities on the Web using this range of GIS client applications. Each client, such as ArcGIS Desktop, can access Web maps and geographic information services. These clients include online tools that are used to get connected to share, discover, and use Web maps and GIS services.

Working with ArcGIS online using ArcMap
ArcGIS Desktop has tools for connecting to the Web to find and use content as well as to publish and manage your GIS content online. ArcGIS provides content galleries and search services online for the ArcGIS community.

ArcGIS also provides a rich development framework for building and sharing GIS through a common, map-based user experience. Web APIs for building focused applications are available for JavaScript, Flex, and Silverlight. These enable developers to build and share interesting and compelling custom Web applications.

People and communities

People are key in every geographic information system. ArcGIS provides a framework that enables users of all types and levels to participate in a community of users who create and share maps and applications. Professional GIS users have the role of creating and managing geographic information, while other users simply use maps and applications created by the others. These GIS Web maps build on the same familiar user experience that is used for working with consumer Web maps (maps from Google, Bing, and so forth).

ArcGIS has an integrated infrastructure for sharing geographic information as files, multiuser databases, and Web sites. A key component is the ArcGIS.com Web site (www.ArcGIS.com). This is a Web site for people to work with and share GIS maps, Web applications, and mobile applications. Any browser user or mobile user can use Web maps and applications shared at ArcGIS.com.

Web developers can also leverage ArcGIS.com because it provides access to and documentation about free Web APIs for ArcGIS. These APIs can be used to build Web and mobile applications using JavaScript, Silverlight, and Flex.

See What is ArcGIS.com? for more information.


Services are the technical basis for managing and organizing shared geographic information. Services make maps available to people with no GIS software—through Web browsers and mobile devices. ArcGIS server encapsulates a map with its associated data and makes the map and the data available through a range of Web and mobile application interfaces, which adhere to common Web community standards.

See What is ArcGIS Server? to learn more about serving geographic information.

The ArcGIS system

The ArcGIS system has a number of key components:

ArcGIS Desktop: This is the ArcGIS software used by GIS professionals. It is powerful and comprehensive GIS software for Windows computers and is used daily for all kinds of GIS activities—for mapping, data compilation and management, spatial analysis, and creating maps and geographic information to be served and used by everyone. ArcGIS Desktop has three product levels: ArcView, ArcEditor, and ArcInfo. See What is ArcGIS Desktop? to learn more.

ArcGIS Server: This is a server-based implementation of ArcGIS and is used to serve the maps, geodatabases, analysis models, and other elements of geographic information that professional users create using ArcGIS Desktop. The GIS services published using ArcGIS Server follow widely adopted Web standards for access and use. ArcGIS Server also includes enterprise geodatabase management and transactional support. ArcGIS Server is widely used in enterprise GIS implementations and for all kinds of Web GIS applications. ArcGIS Server can run on Windows and Linux servers both on-site and in cloud configurations. See What is ArcGIS Server? for more information.

ArcGIS online: All parts of the ArcGIS system have integrated online functionality, and the system includes online maps and geographic information. You can find, use, and share information using any ArcGIS client. ArcGIS.com provides a Web site that enables users to work with online maps and geographic information using Web browsers and mobile devices. See What is ArcGIS online? to learn more about the online capabilities of ArcGIS.

Mobile GIS: One of the primary Web clients to all information, including GIS, is mobile phones and other devices used in the field such as Tablet PCs and advanced GPS data collectors. A number of mobile clients are available for accessing and using GIS in the field. See What is mobile GIS? for more information.

ArcGIS Explorer: ArcGIS Explorer is a free client for exploring, visualizing and sharing GIS information. ArcGIS Explorer supports a number of advanced GIS capabilities including a presentation mode for telling GIS stories using interactive maps. ArcGIS Explorer Online lets you create maps using GIS services published by Esri and the GIS community and store them as part of ArcGIS Online so anyone can access them. ArcGIS Explorer Desktop adds support for geodatabases, shapefiles, raster imagery, text files, and KML so you can combine local data sources with GIS services.

ArcGIS.com: ArcGIS.com is a browser-based Web application for using ArcGIS content online. It connects users with Web maps, Web applications, and GIS services—for use within a single organization, in a community, or openly on the Web. ArcGIS.com includes a gallery of GIS maps and data from Esri and the broad ArcGIS community. ArcGIS.com is also the site for Web developers to access APIs for JavaScript, Flex, and Silverlight. To get started using Web GIS, visit www.ArcGIS.com.

Source: http://help.arcgis.com