As I talk with construction professionals, there seems to be a lot of confusion about “the cloud.” Recently, for example, I read an online conversation prompted by a CFO’s question about what is a true cloud ERP system. The responses were as varied as opinions on what is a true high-performance car.
Why the confusion? Part of it stems from the broad definition of cloud computing, itself.
A variety of cloud options
In simplest terms, cloud computing is the delivery of on-demand computing resources, usually as a service, over the Internet. That definition leaves a lot of room for different approaches to cloud computing. For construction companies, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it provides construction firms with a lot more choices in how they want to use the cloud.
For example, on one side of the cloud spectrum is software as a service (SaaS). A SaaS solution is your purest form of cloud software. It is an all-inclusive cloud option in which you don’t have to install, update, or trouble shoot problems with the software. All you do is pay a subscription fee to access and use the application via the Internet. Your use of the solution can be via a “browser” or a “native application” written for the specific device.
On the other end of the spectrum is on-premises software that you own, install, and run on your own machines within your company’s walls. This is a completely non-cloud scenario. In between full on-premises software and SaaS, however, are a variety of cloud variations that construction companies are using. These include, but are not limited to:
Windows remote desktop: Remote desktop virtualization has been around for a while. It allows you to store Windows applications and data on your local corporate server but provide access to the applications via a private connection over a local (LAN) or wide area network (WAN). Two of the most common types of Windows remote desktop solutions are Microsoft Remote Desktop Services (previously known as Terminal Services) and Citrix.
Today remote desktop virtualization has expanded to the cloud, allowing you to tap into Windows and other business applications over the Internet using any device. There are a number of ways to do this, including using a virtual private network (VPN). In this case, the VPN is essentially another wide area network that allows information to securely pass over the less secure public Internet using encryption, user authentication, and other protective measures.
Cloud hosting services: Many contractors, faced with aging servers, hardware, and networking components, have opted for a cloud-hosting option rather than invest in new equipment. Hosting services will run your Windows applications for you on equipment in cloud data centers. In addition to helping you offload IT equipment and tasks, cloud hosting services also allow you to access your applications anytime, anywhere, and on any device. Some hosting services, such as Swizznet, specialize in applications like Sage to provide more customized service.
Browser-based software: Some on-premises Windows applications are browser-based and mobile-enabled via services like Azure Active Directory Application Proxy This allows you to provide greater authorized access to backend information (such as accounting) without putting the data directly into the cloud. Essentially, contractors can keep their on-premises software and data on their own machines or in a data center. Cloud technology, in this case, is used more as a secure “browser” or gateway into your backend systems to provide the mobile access you need. One example of this approach is Sage Mobile Projects.
SaaS software integrated with Windows on-premises software: Integration between pure on-premises software and pure SaaS apps is also happening, providing yet another way to more easily share data among your team. This is usually accomplished via some sort of a “synchronization connector” that sits with your on-premises software and talks to the SaaS solution.
Too much focus on the cloud?
Perhaps it’s time to change the conversation. Instead of focusing on the nuances of cloud computing, the discussion is more about business needs. Do you want to access information anytime and anywhere? How much of your IT do you want to manage yourself? What are your security requirements and restrictions? Do you need scalability?
Understanding what you want to get out of the cloud can guide your interaction with cloud providers and help you select the best solution for your company. “The key to a successful cloud strategy is to evaluate your business’s individual workflows and work with a solution provider to select and integrate all the types of offerings needed to meet your specific requirements, enabling you to work seamlessly in one pane of glass,” says Mike Callan, CEO of Swizznet.
The cloud is continuing to mature and change. In fact, at some point, talk about what the cloud is and isn’t may stop entirely, as the technology itself takes a back seat to the capabilities it offers.