GeoServer was started in 2001 by The Open Planning Project (TOPP), a non-profit technology incubator based in New York. TOPP was creating a suite of tools to enable open democracy and to help make government more transparent. The first of these was GeoServer, which came out of a recognition that a suite of tools to enable citizen involvement in government and urban planning would be greatly enhanced by the ability to share spatial data.
The GeoServer founders envisioned a Geospatial Web, analogous to the World Wide Web. With the World Wide Web, one can search for and download text. With the Geospatial Web, one can search for and download spatial data. Data providers would be able to publish their data straight to this web, and users could directly access it, as opposed to the now indirect and cumbersome methods of sharing data that exist today.
Those involved with GeoServer founded the GeoTools project, an open source GIS Java toolkit. Through GeoTools, support for shapefiles, Oracle databases, and much more was added.
Around the same time as GeoServer was founded, The OpenGIS Consortium (now the Open Geospatial Consortium) was working on the Web Feature Service standard. It specifies a protocol to make spatial data directly available on the web, using GML (Geographic Markup Language), an interoperable data format. A Web Map Service was also created, a protocol for creating and displaying map images created from spatial data.
Other projects became interrelated. Refractions Research created PostGIS, a free and open spatial database, which enabled GeoServer to connect to a free database. Also, MetaCarta originally created OpenLayers, an open source browser-based map viewing utility. Together, these tools have all enhanced the functionality of GeoServer.
GeoServer can now read data from over a dozen spatial data sources and output to many different formats. Now in its second decade, GeoServer is continuing on its mission to make spatial data more accessible to all.