Examining cloud computing formations

David Berger, P.Eng., contributing editor, explores the dark side, and silver lining, of cloud computing.

By David Berger, P.Eng., contributing editor

Where would language be without technology? It seems new words or new combinations and definitions of old words come into existence every week because of some technical innovation. Whether it’s an acronym such as “SaaS” (ie, Software as a Service) or a concept such as “cloud computing,” technology is never at a loss for words.

Cloud computing is a source of much confusion on the part of the user community. The term emerged from the symbol used by IT departments to depict the Internet when drawing system architecture drawings or data flow diagrams. Many definitions have been proposed by vendors, consultants, academics and other IT professionals. However, the common theme appears to be provision of hosted services via the Internet. Cloud computing is, therefore, an extension of these concepts.

Software as a Service (SaaS): Software applications such as a CMMS, and the hardware infrastructure to run them, are hosted by a vendor and/or third party and delivered to users through the Internet. Users can access services from anywhere via the Web because both the CMMS application and data are hosted. Fees are charged for blocks of hours consumed and typically include unlimited online maintenance, upgrades, support and training.

Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA): Key components of an application can be broken into pieces or services (eg, check spare parts inventory). Each service is standardized and open, so it can communicate with any other vendor product that adopts the SOA framework. Services can be used within a given vendor application (eg, within your CMMS when scheduling or doing cycle counts), via the Internet, or on a local network. Services also can be easily interfaced with other SOA-compliant services using the Internet. The key benefit of SOA is that services are interoperable, ie, independent from individual vendor devices, platforms and programming languages.

Web 2.0: The Web has evolved considerably from the early days of simply disseminating information to users in the form of an electronic brochure, to a more sophisticated, user-centric means of collaboration, social networking and provision of interactive hosted services over the Internet referred to as “Web 2.0.” Most CMMS vendors are actively engaged in this transition, offering products/services such as Web-based applications and add-ons, portals, blogs, Web-based communities, document sharing and a more collaborative user experience.

Will your CMMS will be available if your service provider goes on strike?

– David Berger, P.Eng., contributing editor

Cloud computing builds on these concepts, but emphasizes interoperability as the ultimate goal. This minimizes both the silos of automation and the need to develop expensive interfaces between applications and databases, which, in turn, results in greater efficiencies and better decision-making. Users, therefore, should care about cloud computing as a means of more easily and quickly accessing the required data regardless of source. However, eyes cloud over and ears tune out when confronted with terms like cloud computing, Web 2.0 and so on. Users tend to be less concerned about where the computer hardware is located or how the data flows, and more concerned about the user interface. Cloud computing must be presented in terms that are meaningful to the users, ie, “so what?”

CMMS users most certainly care about the difficulty in extracting information from systems controlled by silo departments such as finance, purchasing, human resources, engineering, operations and outside vendor silos. In an ideal cloud-computing world where there are interoperability standards, it would be easy to interface the myriad of applications from different systems, regardless of the type of hardware or vendor used to collect, analyze, store or report on the data. Examples of important integration points for asset managers include:

Operations: Technicians use the CMMS to monitor production lines on a real-time basis through an interface with plant automation to determine equipment availability and performance. If sub-optimal, they quickly determine whether it’s a maintenance-related issue and what action to take.

Engineering: Techs in the field redline drawings from within the CMMS on a laptop to show corrections, such as the location of a valve, and pass the drawing to Engineering for approval and revision through an interface with Geographic Information System (GIS) software.

Outside vendor: Maintenance planners receive from an outside vendor documentation such as “as-is” drawings, equipment specifications, spare parts listing and equipment hierarchy, that needs to be entered into the CMMS asset master file through an interface with the outside vendor’s software

With the benefit of cloud computing, users can more easily accomplish these and many other integrated functions, through the promise of open standards, plug-and-play compatibility and interoperability. Users have greater flexibility in putting together an optimal solution regardless of the mix of hardware/software vendors.

Cloud formations

Here are the three key types of clouds available, with key benefits:

Public or external cloud: Services are provided by a vendor offering CMMS or other applications, hardware to host it, and human resources to run and maintain it. Benefits are that there’s no upfront investment, you only pay for what you use and it’s easily scalable.

Private or internal cloud: Services are provided on your own corporate network behind a firewall, ie, hosted by your data center as if it was an external vendor. Benefits are greater privacy, security and control over data.

Hybrid cloud: This is a combination of public and private clouds, such as a CMMS on a public cloud interfaced with spare parts inventory as part of an ERP system running on a private cloud. Benefits are potentially the best of both worlds.

The dark side of clouds

Despite the perception that cloud computing is a cheaper, cleaner and more expeditious option, this silver lining sometimes comes with a darker interior. Some potential disadvantages of cloud computing to consider when weighing CMMS options:

Who’s really hosting: Although your contract might be with XYZ Company that sells you the CMMS, XYZ might outsource the hosting to ABC Co. to reduce its costs, which in turn, might outsource to one or more companies for data storage and data management. This builds clouds within the cloud. So, your data and application might be managed by some unknown company or companies in some unknown country with different standards and regulations regarding privacy and security.

Ownership of data: With a proliferation of applications available in externally-hosted environments, it’s difficult to keep track of exactly where your data goes. In fact, with some contracts you might not even own the data you think you own, let alone control where it does and does not go. Make sure your contract with a CMMS vendor is clear on who owns the data and put limits on sharing.

Lost or stolen data: Although some maintenance managers think there’s no worthwhile CMMS data to protect from loss or theft, governments and the general public might see it differently for some industries. Even if the data were inconsequential, the optics and publicity can be damaging to a company’s reputation. Can you be sure that your CMMS service provider and its third-party partners will keep your data safe from espionage or careless loss?

Continuity of service: Many companies expend a large effort on building redundancy, ensuring adequate backup power generation, and developing and testing disaster recovery plans. What assurance do you have that your CMMS will be available if your service provider goes on strike, suffers a power failure, experiences a natural disaster, goes bankrupt, is purchased by a third party, is non-compliant with government regulations, etc.?

Portability: If you ever become unhappy with your external CMMS service provider, it’s difficult to break away and find the budget, resources, space and time to take your business elsewhere or bring it in-house.

E-mail Contributing Editor David Berger, P.Eng., partner, Western Management Consultants, at david@wmc.on.ca.

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