A stroll down the aisles of your local electronics store reveals the enormous changes that have transpired over the past decade regarding devices available to users, including the always-evolving human/computer interface. Devices have become more personal, such as smart phones, but also better suited to a wide variety of situations, such as ruggedized PCs for more harsh shop-floor environments, or tablets for operators in the field. The human/computer interface has advanced from the large keyboard that sits in front of a desktop PC, to the touch screen of a smart phone or tablet that adjusts to ambient light levels, the orientation of the screen and the slight hand movements used to easily scroll through screens or change the size of the material displayed.
This evolution has put tremendous capability into the hands of CMMS end users. Starting with field workers but quickly adopted by maintainers everywhere, the more portable devices have given a huge boost to the productivity of users that have learned how best to exploit the new technology. CMMS vendors have realized that it is not enough to simply replicate their desktop applications onto the smaller screens of more personal devices. The CMMS must be geared to the size and features of the device, the work environment and the nature of the job to be done.
Below is an overview of the many devices that CMMS users might deploy, including advantages and disadvantages of each.
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For companies that have a CMMS running on a mainframe computer, it is possible to survive with a simple dumb terminal. In this case, “dumb” means there is no local computing or data storage capability on the terminal, such as a CPU or hard drive. All of the data-handling power comes from the mainframe or central server. The mainframe can reside somewhere in the same building as the terminals, or can be in a more remote location within the company, accessed via a wide area network (WAN). Alternatively, the mainframe can be externally hosted and accessed via a private network or the Web.
Advantages: One advantage of running a CMMS through dumb terminals is, of course, the cost of the terminals. Another key advantage for some companies is that a dumb terminal is more secure given the lack of local processing capability. No external software applications can be run on a dumb terminal, nor can data be loaded locally, thereby minimizing user distractions. All data and applications are tightly managed centrally.
Disadvantages: Dumb terminals are complete slaves to what is available through the central server. This means users cannot download data onto their local hard drive and work off-line, say, using a spreadsheet. Users are at the mercy of a central IT group for all of their computing needs. Furthermore, if demand on the server is lumpy, this might translate into sluggish response time during peak periods. If an individual or department requires a specialized software application, it must be run centrally, if it is even compatible with the central computer’s operating system and database. Even if it is available and compatible, it might be far more expensive to run centrally than on an individual’s personal computer.
By contrast, a desktop computer has its own computer processor and data storage capability. The onboard computing power varies according to the central processing unit (CPU), including speed and ability to conduct parallel processing. Data storage options abound starting with read-only memory (ROM) for operating functions such as boot up, and random-access memory (RAM) for quick access to stored data in order to run applications. For longer-term data storage that continues after a unit is switched off, desktop computers have built-in solid state drives (SSDs), hard disk drives (HDDs), tape drives, flash drives and optical disk drives (ODDs) running CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray disks. External drives are also available for increasing data storage capacity and backup.
Advantages: Desktops can provide significant horsepower for running local applications and providing fast retrieval of local data. This potentially reduces the strain on the server, especially in peak periods. It also gives users control over which applications they choose to run, so that they are less reliant on what is available via the network. For example, this allows users to download CMMS data into local spreadsheets, project management software, mapping applications or some MS Access program for further manipulation of data, independent of what’s available on the server. Another key advantage is that there is a large variety of full-size keyboards and multiple large screens that can be deployed with the desktop option.
Disadvantages: Some companies greatly restrict the applications that can be run locally, as well as the quantity and nature of data that can be stored. This is both from a security perspective, to avoid data loss or contamination, and from a control perspective such as preventing users from spending money frivolously. Another key disadvantage from IT’s vantage point is that the cost of so many desktops is high, relative to the company’s ability to efficiently and effectively tap into the tremendous computing power and storage capability represented by their sum total. Thus, the relatively low utilization of local workstation capability and capacity makes desktop computing a more expensive solution.
A portable personal computer has virtually the same capability as a desktop; however, it can be carried with the user from place to place. Portable PCs vary in terms of size and weight, which translates into computing power and data storage capability. Examples of portable PCs include laptops, also referred to as notebooks; netbooks, which are a smaller, lighter and less powerful rendition of the laptop; and tablet PCs, which are all the rage these days since the introduction of the Apple iPad. The common thread is that all of these devices are large and powerful enough to run full operating systems like their desktop counterparts. This is not necessarily true of the even smaller devices such as smart phones.
Advantages: The weight, flexibility and convenience of portable PCs have virtually killed the desktop consumer market. These devices can be taken home or on a trip, providing easy and secure access to applications such as your CMMS via a wireless or hardwired network/Internet connection. Data can be stored locally and applications run off-line if necessary, such as on a plane or in a remote location in the field. Ruggedized devices can be purchased that give protection against vibration, impact, dirt, chemicals and other harsh working conditions.
Disadvantages: The smaller the device, the fewer the features, the harder it is to read the screen, and the more difficult it is to input data using the smaller keys. This is especially noticeable given our aging population. As well, portable PCs are more expensive than desktops with equivalent features and functions. In general, as the weight decreases, the price increases assuming functionality remains constant. Another disadvantage of the smaller portable PCs is that functionality drops off as the size decreases including computing power, data storage capacity and external device connectivity.
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Personal digital assistant (PDA)
The PDA or smart phone such as a Blackberry, iPhone or Android, takes the advantages and disadvantages of portable PCs to a whole new level. Although PDAs are less powerful, store less data locally, have less connectivity and users find it even more difficult to see the screen and enter data, the devices are nevertheless hugely popular. It is truly a personal device that can be kept with you at all times. CMMS vendors are just beginning to tap this growing market, providing simple mobile solutions appropriate for the size and limitations of the device.
Email Contributing Editor David Berger, P.Eng., partner, Western Management Consultants, at email@example.com.