What Is Esri?

Over the last few years we (at xyHt) have discussed Esri as an industry-leading GIS many times, but what is it? What is ArcMap, ArcGIS Pro, or any of the other things with “Arc” names? The truth is a little confusing, but at the same time a little clever. In this blog I hope to demystify things a little.

When people refer to “Esri GIS” they are actually referring to a suite of software and tools that provide answers for different requirements. The primary software and tools are outlined below, most popular for the GIS professional being ArcGIS Pro. 


ArcGIS Desktop (ArcGIS, ArcInfo, ArcEditor, ArcView, ArcMap)

Originally called ArcInfo, then called ArcView, this is generally known as ArcGIS Desktop.

ArcGIS Desktop 10.6

This is the original (2D) GIS that almost every geospatial person knows. It is complete Marmite: some love it and some despise it, but no matter how you feel, you have to respect it.

Although restricted to operating as a 32bit system, it had some huge capabilities even in its first iterations. When I worked for a Council circa 2008 we were using ArcView 3.2 (released in 2000) for digitizing local plans and property ownership. Even though I had worked on the newer versions of ArcGIS Desktop, it still felt natural and quick to use.

Out of the box, ArcView 3.2 had lots of tools through its “Geoprocessing wizard,” but it is fondly loved for its “Avenue” scripting language that allowed people to extend the capability of the software way beyond what many thought was possible. And these scripts became invaluable; many users built their whole company environment around the automation and functionality that they provided. There were also several “add-on” software available, like the famous “ET Geowizards” or “X-Tools” that provided a large plethora of tools that gave the software almost full Esri specification for a fraction of the cost.

Unfortunately, Avenue was discontinued as a language for the next versions of ArcGIS Desktop in favor of Visual Basic, and then in version 9 of ArcGIS Desktop this started depreciating in favor of Python. 

What makes Arc(View/Map) so great is that it has such a large number of tools: this is both its strength and its curse. There are hundreds of tools that are available to such a wide market of users, with tools to handle 3D data, raster analysis, hydrographic data, survey data, and many others, as well as the usual tools to merge, edit, analyze, and buffer. To the unfamiliar user, it can be quite tricky to find the specific tool you need amongst such a long list.

With the ability to build your own tools through the “model builder,” it is pretty much a “one stop shop” for any type of geospatial work you need to do. If the tool you want isn’t there and if it is useful, they will build it. Unfortunately, this is also its curse, or at least it used to be, because there is such a large number of tools to maintain and test through its quarterly updates is a mammoth task.

I distinctly remember one year when I had 40+ maps to export to a client, and our IT department (for the first time ever) decided to update ArcGIS Desktop to the newer version. They weren’t to know that there was a coordinate system issue that offset everything by 40m, and we wasted half a day uninstalling and reinstalling an earlier version. A bug fix was released within a couple of days by Esri, but a couple of days with 10 staff charged at £500 a day is a lot of money.

Insider tip: ArcMap used to have memory issues, one being contiguous memory. Although it is a 32bit application, it will use as much memory as you can throw at it. It is well known to long-time Esri users to have 64GB or more of RAM. If you find ArcMap running slow or having problems with crashes, I highly recommend throwing a lot of RAM at it.


Fifteen years ago when 3D GIS was something only survey people did, Esri released a product called ArcScene as a free software along with its ArcMap 8.2 release. This allowed some breakthrough functionality for GIS: it allowed 3D modeling and animation. I first saw this in 2005 when I was shown some amazing flood modeling animations of a Scottish Loch; at the time it blew my mind. 

ArcScene 10.6

Although ArcScene could be used for some 3D analysis, it was predominantly designed for the visualization and modeling of 3D data, especially raster format data. Options are available to adjust light direction, elevation (z) factor, smoothness off surfaces (for rendering speed). Furthermore, there are a whole lot of methods for animation so that you can either take screenshots and link them together, allow the camera to follow a drawn path, or even by time within a data field. 

ArcScene may appear to be outdated by today’s  modern 3D GIS, but it would still give a few people a run for their money. It is still provided with ArcGIS Desktop licenses but has been superseded by ArcGIS Pro which has replicated and improved many of its features. Plus the functions now work in a 64bit environment compared to the 32bit environment of old.

Pro tip: The out-of-the-box video export formats are a little limited, so download some good video drivers OR export the video as high-resolution single images that you can then assemble in a video creation software (I use my GoPro software),

ArcGIS Pro

This is the successor to ArcMap. Many years ago, legend had it that there would be a 64 bit version of ArcMap that would have 3D capability. Whispers were that it would be called “ArcGIS 11.” How wrong we were, not only was it far better than that but it now has more features than ArcMap ever did and allows you to export maps straight to the web!! ArcGIS Desktop is now coming to the end of its product lifecycle, with support ending in 2022 and Esri have been working extremely hard the past couple of years to ensure that no feature from ArcGIS Desktop is missing from ArcGIS Pro.

Earth within ArcGIS Pro with lighting and stars displayed

ArcGIS Pro is a 3D GIS. Just like ArcGIS Desktop it has a huge catalogue of tools which are designed to meet the needs of every type of geospatial user. What separates this from other geospatial software is that it is wholly 3D (although you can use it in 2D if you wish) and supports all of the Proj4 coordinate systems as well as transformations. It allows you to edit features and work with features in 3D as well as view both the macro (whole-world globe including stars) and micro scale, including underground data. Rebuilt from the ground up, the system not only allows for most, if not all geospatial data types (some require an additional add-on), but also supports model feature types like Collada and STL so that more convincing environments can be built.

Like with ArcGIS Desktop, what makes this application so powerful is the enormous amount of geospatial tools available that cater to so many different forms of geospatial analysis and workflow requirements. ArcGIS Pro also introduced some nice 3D editing tools, allowing interactive editing like you would in SketchUp. You also get more control over elevation, lighting, moon, stars, and atmosphere (yes! really!). 

Using lidar data (total-station capture) within ArcGIS Pro

One of the most powerful tricks that ArcGIS Pro has up its sleeves is that you can export your maps to the web. In fact, you can export all of the data in your map to the web, even as a 3D web map in a great What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) experience that you can then share with others who can use your online 3D (or 2D if you choose) maps to measure, slice, or even edit if you allow them to. Furthermore, the Esri online maps experience is so advanced that it also has tools for you to perform analysis on data.  

Pro tip: If you go to Projects – Options – Display – You then have the option to clear your display cache which is extremely useful as it can run into 30+GB….while you’re there it is also useful to change your cache location – if you have a large SSD or fast HDD you can use, you’ll see an improvement.

ArcGIS Earth

When Google announced that Google Earth Enterprise was no longer going to be supported, Esri produced a free software which allowed users to visualise their 3D data on a globe, the advertisement had a strong slant on its KML capabilities.

Earth seen in ArcGIS Earth

ArcGIS is sometimes overlooked but uses much of the Esri data to provide high resolution seamless terrain, good quality aerial imagery and also measuring and drawing tools. It works really well for communicating 3D objects much in the way Google Earth was able to. 

I’ve used this many times in the past to communicate projects by inserting hyperlinks and documents within data but now the online capability is so good, many use this to share information instead

City Engine

This is the 3D procedural modeling software mentioned in a previous blog of mine, “Esri CityEngine, What is it?” It provides some automation to building large numbers of objects, like small urban areas where you can apply “rules” to the data so that if a footprint is a certain size, the building will appear as a certain style. This is powerful for modeling applications and has been used with great success by Disney for adding buildings to environments.

Pro tip: There are some great rules on Geonet and the Esri store, worth taking a look at to save time!

ArcGIS Urban

In my interview with Jack Dangermond, he mentioned that Esri wanted to do more with urban planning; now they have created an urban-planning-specific software. 

ArcGIS Urban is a a collection of web-based and desktop tools to help create and manage plans and projects using geodesign tools. The easiest way to really relate what it is would be to say that it is a stripped-back version of ArcGIS Pro specifically designed with geodesign at its core. By doing this, the application is much easier for planners and GIS users to use collaboratively and get the information they require.


Screenshot of the huge list of tools available

As I have mentioned in above, ArcGIS Pro and ArcGIS Desktop are powerful due to the huge amount of tools available. Out of the box there are many tools available to allow you to perform tasks such as merging, intersecting, overlaying, smoothing, altering, and probably about another 50 others, more than enough for the average user. But if you work in a specific field like 3D, offshore, imagery analysis, military, cartography or other, there are tools specifically catered for your needs. 

Spatial Analyst

This toolbox is a must for most users. It provides a means for interpolating points, working on more complex raster analysis—like cost weighting, hydrology, solar radiance, raster math, surface tools, contouring, and also viewsheds, to name a few. 

These tools were invaluable to me when working in the offshore sector. The ability to take x,y,z survey points and quickly render them into a surface raster and having lots of interpolation methods available (IDW and Kriging are in there!) saved my neck a few times.

3D Analyst

Originally (by this I mean when there were no 3D GIS), this toolbox allowed you to create and work with 3D data. Now that we have 3D GIS, it allows you to extend your data as well as the functions to change your 2D data to 3D.

Interestingly, the 3D Analyst toolset provides some of the raster functionality that is provided with the Spatial Analyst tools, the raster math, interpolation, reclassification, and visibility (viewshed). Where the 3D Analyst excels is with the 3D vector data though; with these tools alone I have built out large cities with 3D data with just some 2D building footprints. 

Tools included, but not limited to, are: triangulated surface tools, conversion tools (work between Collada, KML, LAS, TIN and others), LAS tools, CityEngine tools (some limited CityEngine functionality), surface tools, footprint tools, and 3D feature tools.

Some of the 3D Analyst tools

Military Analyst

Designed for allowing military personnel to create and plan missions quickly and efficiently, this has some great little tools (though slightly more U.S.-centric), for example line of sight, hillshade and terrain analysis, military-grid reference conversion tools, and also tools for measuring with geodesic lines. 

Maritime Analyst

This allows conversion and use of S-100 & S-101 data with the Esri environment.

Business Analyst

This toolset is focused on market analysis, providing tools to evaluate demographic information, customer distributions and network, and well as suitability analysis and trade areas (customer and competitor analysis). All this information can be relayed via the reporting tools.

Other toolboxes available are:

  • Analysis toolbox
  • Aviation toolbox
  • Cartography toolbox
  • Conversion toolbox
  • Data Interoperability toolbox
  • Data Management toolbox
  • Data Reviewer toolbox
  • Editing toolbox
  • Feature Analysis toolbox
  • GeoAnalytics toolbox
  • Geocoding toolbox
  • Geostatistical Analyst toolbox
  • Image Analyst toolbox
  • Linear Referencing toolbox
  • Location Referencing toolbox
  • Multidimension toolbox
  • Network Analyst toolbox
  • Raster Analysis toolbox
  • Ready To Use toolbox
  • Server toolbox
  • Space Time Pattern Mining toolbox
  • Spatial Statistics toolbox
  • Territory Design toolbox
  • Topographic Production toolbox
  • Utility Network toolbox
  • Workflow Manager toolbox

To summarize, what is Esri? The answer is a suite of geospatial tools for almost anyone who works with geospatial data. Yes, it is a little confusing; there are so many different names, tools, and terms that make it hard to get a grasp on it, but keep in mind that it has to be able to meet the demands of so many different types of users from so many different sectors. 

The main system will always be the GIS—this is ArcGIS Pro—then around it are the tools you can pick and choose for what you need. The good thing is that there are enough of them to cover you no matter what you are doing.


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