Tile layers

ArcGIS Online includes a variety of basemaps that provide immediate geographic context for your operational layers. The basemaps are stored as tile layers, designed for fast and simple access by web maps, web apps, ArcGIS, and nearly any mapping software application. For example, you might include a basemap with tiles of streets in your neighborhood to provide a visual reference for the street signs in your feature layer. Tile layers are also useful when you need to expose a map or layer on the web for the visualization of relatively static data.

Tile layers come in various formats based on the original source data. Tile layers can be stored as prerendered map tile layers or as vector tiles. Both raster and vector tiles are designed to provide high-performance and high-scalability delivery of map data for visualization purposes.

Map tile layer

A map tile layer is comprised of cached raster tiles, also called map tile cache. These are delivered as basemaps to your client application as image files (for example, JPG or PNG format) that have been prerendered and stored on the server and are statically displayed by the client. Map tile caches are most appropriate for basemaps that give your maps geographic context such as imagery (as in the World Imagery basemap) or feature-based maps such as in the Topographic, National Geographic, Oceans, and other basemaps. Map tile caches can also be composed of static operational layers such as thematic maps of your data.

The cached tiles are fast to transmit over the internet and are easily understood by most common mapping software applications, so these basemaps are compatible not only with ArcGIS and web apps built with the ArcGIS APIs, but also third-party apps that use OGC protocols such as WMTS. Other benefits of map tile caches include the following:

  • Work well across a wide range of applications and devices (web, desktop, and mobile), including desktop applications, such as ArcMap, and older versions of web browsers.
  • Provide high-end cartographic capabilities such as advanced label placement and symbology.
  • Support compressed three-band imagery and elevation data.
  • Can be printed from web mapping applications.

Vector tile layers

Vector tile layers deliver map data as vector files (for example, PBF format) and include one or more layers that are rendered on the client based on a style delivered with the layer. Vector tiles include similar data to that found in some (but not all) of the available map tile layer basemaps, but they store a vector representation of the data; that is, geographic features are represented as points, lines, and polygons in a format understood by the client application. Unlike static map tile caches, vector tile layers can adapt to the resolution of their display device and be restyled for multiple uses. The combination of tile access performance and vector drawing allows the tiles to adapt to any resolution of the display, which may vary across devices.

In Map Viewer Classic, you can customize the style of the vector tile layer and the contents of the map. Other benefits of vector tile layers include the following:

  • Vector tile layers can be used to generate many map styles using a single set of vector tiles. You can customize vector tile layers—for example, hide their visibility, change symbols and fonts, change languages for labels, and so on—without having to regenerate tiles.
  • They look great on high-resolution displays (for example, retina devices) without the need for generating separate, high-resolution versions. Vector tiles can be displayed at any scale level with clear symbology and labels in desktop applications such as ArcGIS Pro.
  • They can be generated quickly, and with fewer hardware resources, than corresponding map tile layers. This reduces the cost to generate the tiles.
  • Vector tiles are much smaller in size than corresponding map tile layers with rendered symbology. This slightly reduces the cost to store and serve the tiles.
  • Vector tile layers can be projected into various coordinate systems, using desktop applications such as ArcGIS Pro, without distortion of labels and other symbols.
  • You can publish a vector tile layer from a hosted feature layer, edit the data in the hosted feature layer, and rebuild the vector tile cache to incorporate the edits into the vector tile layer.

For more information on vector tile layers, view the following ArcGIS StoryMaps content:

Vector tile layers have the best performance on machines with newer hardware, and they can be displayed in the current versions of most desktop browsers, including Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Microsoft Edge. You can add vector tile layers as operational layers or basemaps to Map Viewer, Map Viewer Classic, or Scene Viewer.

Vector basemaps include a number of styles that you can customize. Visit the Esri vector basemap group to see sample vector styles you can use as well as what can be done to change the look of the map. Sample styles include simple color changes and more involved redesigns using sprite and font changes. The vector basemaps are updated frequently and include regular contributions from the GIS community.

With ArcGIS Pro 1.2 and later, you can share a vector tile package to your organization and publish the uploaded vector tile package as a hosted layer. With ArcGIS Pro 1.4 and later, you can publish a hosted vector tile layer from a map in ArcGIS Pro directly to ArcGIS Online.

When to create each type of tile layer

Both map tile layers and vector tile layers support a wide range of symbology sets and display features faster than feature or dynamic map layers because they only need to access the tile caches rather than source data. If you need this functionality, publish a tile layer. But when should you use a map tile layer and when should you use a vector tile layer?

The main purpose of map tile layers is to provide an image basemap to give important context for the vector layers in the map. For example, roads present in imagery have variable width and shoulders that allow ingress and egress of emergency vehicles, allow storage of material and equipment, and provide other decision support information. Additionally, orthoimage basemaps, accessed as map tile layers, are often used to revise outdated vector landbase layers. Map tiles can also serve elevation data that is used to provide terrain for 3D scenes.

Vector tile layers can be scaled and projected into various coordinate systems without distortion of labels and other symbols. They use less disk space and take less time to build caches than map tile layers.

When you publish a vector tile layer from ArcGIS Pro, you have the option to publish an associated feature layer with it. If you need to update the vector data included in the vector tile layer on a frequent basis (hourly, daily, weekly), publish an associated feature layer with the vector tile layer. When you do this, you and the other editors with whom you share the feature layer can edit data in the feature layer. You can then periodically rebuild the vector tile layer cache to incorporate the edits made in the feature layer.

If the data doesn't get updated often or at all, you can publish just the vector tile layer. If you do need to update the content of this type of vector tile layer, you can replace it with another vector tile layer.