Cloud-based storage and applications have been with us for some time. Increasingly, more and more fleet-generated data is stored and processed in what’s called a “cloud environment.” Because cloud-based systems are somewhat invisible, many users are uncertain exactly what that means.
Technically, the cloud is a network of internet-connected computer servers used for data storage and computing. There are different types of clouds. Private clouds are just that. For instance, many telematics and transportation management software providers use a private cloud where customers store and access data. Some large trucking companies maintain their own private clouds within their data centers. Public clouds are those offered by third parties, with the most advanced being cloud services from technology giants such as Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM. Anyone can rent storage space and computing power in public clouds, and many technology companies do just that.
For trucking companies, even if your operation still runs the bulk of your business on servers based on-site, chances are you still have data collected in the cloud — whether you are aware of it or not.
“Many fleets have been in some form of the cloud for years through the products they’re using,” says Chris Sandberg, vice president of information technology, PeopleNet. This includes telematics products as well as software-as-a-service, or SaaS, applications. “Any time they’re using a SaaS offering, it’s more than likely in a cloud infrastructure of some type,” he explains. As a result, “their data has been stored and processed in the cloud for years now.”
Why the cloud has become more common
The bottom line reason cloud-based computing and storage have grown within the industry is the value it adds to a fleet’s business in terms of helping to reduce cost, says John Molamphy, vice president of engineering, Verizon Connect.
But the change has also come about as companies have changed their mindset on cloud computing. “In the trucking industry, we are coming into the age of the cloud every single day,” says Ben Barnes, vice president, IT services, McLeod Software. While the technology has improved, one of the more important changes, according to Barnes, is that most IT staff no longer view the cloud as a threat. Instead, companies are finding that they can “put the ‘keep the lights on’ tasks in the cloud and allow their IT staff to be more innovative,” he explains.
Kevin Haugh, chief technology officer for Omintracs, agrees. “The market is increasingly understanding the potential and reliability of the cloud and its ability to support critical business operations.” He says that telematics providers were among the first private clouds. “A lot of that has transferred over to the public cloud,” he notes, as fleets have opted for public systems such as Amazon Web Services or Microsoft’s Azure rather than installing software on premises.
What it comes down to is where a trucking company feels the data is secure and safe. That used to mean a data center, or even just a closet, on premises. Now, the data might be stored there or in an off-site data center or in multiple data centers.
“The world has changed, and it’s not about what is inside of your walls,” says Ron Godine, vice president information technology and cloud services, TMW. “Small guys got a head start on the cloud because they didn’t have the resources larger fleets did to maintain IT departments — but they could work with vendors that provided those things for them.” This enabled them to compete with larger fleets without large outlays for computing hardware and IT staff.
Companies are more comfortable with the concept than they were 10 years ago. “One of the things we’re finding, there is no challenge as far as having fleet data stored in the cloud,” says Philip Poulidis of Blackberry BTS. Instead, concerns revolve around the accessibility of the data, limited downtime, and security.
Better technology hasn’t hurt the trend. The cloud has become faster and easier to use. With high-speed internet connections, and the vast computing power available in the cloud via Amazon, Microsoft or IBM, it is easier for software providers to provide more robust products, Poulidis says. “Bandwidth, computing power and development advances are all factors.”
The stronger third-party cloud providers “make it easier for companies to scale up and down,” adds Pete Allen, chief client officer, Mix Telematics.
Another factor driving the adoption of cloud-based systems is that they are getting cheaper. It comes down to economies of scale, says Mark Sievers, architecture team lead, Eroad. The advantages offered by cloud computing have led to more adoption, which has led to continued growth in the major public cloud providers. “Cloud providers are constantly reducing the cost of infrastructure while improving the performance.”
The services available continue to expand, allowing more complex data processing and analytics with faster response times.
The benefits of cloud computing go beyond faster, quicker and more powerful computing, however, and include “a bunch of things,” Allen says. For one, a trucking company’s IT requirements for supporting and maintaining servers is reduced, or in some cases, eliminated.
Sandberg points to the transportability and availability of the data as key benefits.
That includes being able to access the data from any device with an internet connection, says Steve Wen, business development and strategy, Dray Alliance, a B2B platform streamlining the drayage process, says that, “Multiple users could edit on the platform without delay.”
Barnes agrees that the ability to access the data from anywhere is a huge benefit. “You were confined to working in one place, but most cloud solutions are accessible anywhere.”
Or as Verizon Connect’s Molamphy puts it, “the benefits are endless, with fleets able to easily access data on route, mileage, speed, road conditions, idle time, and other critical information that allows fleet managers to be more efficient and productive.”
The cloud and data backups
Most public cloud systems provide inexpensive backup options, often with redundancy so there are multiple backups available if something goes wrong. But should all your data be backed up this way? For Sandberg, it comes down to the question: How critical is the data? Backups on a public cloud might take “24 hours or longer to recover data, which can halt a fleet’s operations,” he explains. “If you need it faster, consider other backup methods.”
Barnes, who comes from an IT security background, believes the more backups, the better. “You can have as many backups as you want and you can still make more.” The cloud has made this easier, he added, with some cloud companies offering disaster recovery services as well as backup vaulting. These types of services are more readily available today, Barnes says. A few years ago, such services were beyond the reach of all but the largest companies in terms of cost.
Having both types of backup — in the cloud and on-site or nearby — is an option that many recommend. Again, it depends upon the data, but for critical data, “the best thing is to have both,” Poulidis says.
Jerry Robertson, chief technology officer for TMS provider Bolt System, admits to being “old school,” and suggests keeping both types of backups. “Some things, like compliance or financial records, I’m going to keep it somewhere in a secure vault in my area.”
Dick Hyatt, president and CEO of Decisiv, thinks the backup trend is pointing more toward the cloud. “The economics of cloud-based storage are driving a mass transition away from on-site storage,” he says. But again, each company will have different requirements for backup, storage and recovery.
The bottom line is that cloud computing offers numerous advantages to trucking companies and to their technology vendors as well. But before rushing to put all your systems and data in the cloud, keep in mind that the best, most sophisticated cloud system is only as good as the internet connection. Without that, you could be out of business.