Cloud: Beyond the White Things in the Sky

As a long term supporter of The Association of Chief Estates Surveyors & Property Managers in the Public Sector (ACES), our Managing Director, Mark Wardman was invited to write an article in the ACES publication, The Terrier.

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‘Cloud First’, ‘SaaS’ and ‘Disruptive Technology’ are all phrases you will hear being banded round when selecting, deploying and using Property and Asset Management Software. It is accepted that implementing Cloud based software is the way forward for many organisations, but what does that really mean and how will it impact you? The range of options and types of solutions that are sold as ‘Cloud’ are countless and the jargon can be confusing and often contradictory.

It should be noted that true cloud solutions are not simply older applications with a new front end, but will have been designed from the bottom up to work in the new world. As part of the current initiative for the adoption of cloud for business, in both the Public and Private Sectors, we would argue that the following factors are key when considering a software change and whether migrating to a cloud solution would benefit you. Business drivers and technology challenges are consistent regardless of size, budget and organisational ability. However, understanding how a move to cloud could specifically affect you will lead to more informed and better decision making.

Work from Anywhere
The Public Sector is becoming more agile in the way that it manages staff and delivers services. In order to succeed in this new world, Councils need to be flexible and innovative in the locations where people work and the equipment that they use. This level of agility and flexibility can only truly be met using a cloud computing solution, which enables software to be deployed

● On any device - PC, tablet, phone.
● At any location - office, remote working, when mobile.
● Via any browser - no third party plugins, various platforms, from different suppliers.

All that is required is an internet connection via WiFi or even a phone line and you can be at work. This means that employees can have a better work life balance increasing productivity, improving staff retention whilst driving down property costs.

Drive out Cost
One major advantage is that the cost of the hardware infrastructure can be shared across a number of implementations, thus driving down the cost. There is also the option for SaaS (Software as a Service) which is in line with the Government procurement strategy and frameworks, such as G-Cloud. SaaS removes the need for a significant up-front investment and enables customers to pay for the system as they use it. The days when the IT Department charge a business unit for a dedicated server(s) are gone. Now users pay for the resources that they need based on software and users only.

Better Collaboration
Where teams from both inside and outside an organisation can access, share and edit information from anywhere without software installation, they can be more efficient and productive. Cloud based solutions not only facilitate this with, but make it simple and transparent without adding costs for hardware or support. In most cloud products you would expect different licence types and costs for different user roles, meaning light touch users or external party access could be defined and managed locally to ensure the right people see the relevant information.

Enhanced Support
This is the responsibility of the software supplier and requires no involvement from the local IT support other than the provision of a device (PC, tablet, Chromebook or phone) with a browser.

When it comes to support, there is a single point of contact for both the hardware and the software. The staff on the Help Desk are familiar with both the software and hardware environment meaning the issues can be dealt with much faster leading to less frustration from users.

Suppliers will normally offer guaranteed SLAs as part of the contract covering response times, system availability and back-up. If in doubt over performance, check with the supplier directly or contact their existing clients for feedback on their support experiences.

Managed Upgrades
These are all handled by the software supplier and should be included in the SaaS fee. The work should be done out of hours and as there is no requirement to deploy any software to PCs etc. therefore the impact on the end user is almost non-existent.

However, it is worth considering the phrase ‘multi-tenancy’ which is often quoted as a reason to adopt cloud solutions. And whilst this is true when it comes to hardware, at TF we don’t believe in this for the application and database. It is vital that each Council can retain control on upgrades and configuration changes, based on their business needs; not being forced to upgrade at a point to suit the supplier or other users. Although a ‘multi-tenant’ database might appear to be cheaper, it often comes at a cost of loss of control which can far outweigh the savings. This becomes particularly critical where there is integration with other Enterprise apps and the need to ensure ongoing availability.

Easier Integration
A key component of a cloud solution is the ability to share data between applications, without the need for expensive bespoke file transfer mechanisms. Any system that has been properly designed to work in the cloud world will have RESTful API (Application Programming Interface) support. For example, Twitter has an API that allows users with the appropriate skills to develop software to post tweets without using the Twitter app.

This means that different organisations can use and share data without the need to understand the detailed underlying technology; think of it as a black box into which you can pass requests for data and from which the data is received.

If your potential supplier doesn’t already deploy this technology, they should be discounted if you ever wish to integrate your cloud solution with other Enterprise applications.

Use Mobile Apps
Although a cloud solution can be deployed from anywhere with an internet connection and run on any device, such as a tablet, this is only part of the mobile solution. There is an ever increasing need for mobile apps to run without an internet connection; when surveying or working on a phone or tablet in remote locations there can often be a lack of connection or blackspots. Cloud solutions should provide the option to download data for offline working, with the ability to synchronise back when a connection is available.

Additionally, users expect that the apps will be tailored to provide specific functionality in a simpler layout that is suited to a smaller form factor. Double check that the supplier has thought out the supporting apps, keeping in mind the app end user requirements, roles and capabilities i.e. building occupier, contractor, surveyor.

The easiest way to validate the capability of a potential supplier is to search on the relevant store i.e. Apple App Store, Android Play Store or Windows Store. Ideally there should be apps available on all platforms, to ensure you have flexibility and choice when it comes to your preferred hardware platform.

Supplier Capability and Focus
This is arguably the most important factor when selecting a software partner. The key questions are ‘how well does the supplier understand my business?’ and how committed are they to the market both in the short term and also in the medium to long term?

Obviously, the supplier needs to understand how Property and Estates Management are managed in the UK Public Sector, with software that has been designed and built accordingly. This includes specific functionality such as outputting Transparency Data, responding to the Government’s BIM agenda as well as more standard requirements such as GDPR compliance. In addition, the supplier should have software development and support as their primary business focus, with evidence of innovation such as new products and apps being updated and developed. This ensures that they are reliant on the software continuing to work and being regularly updated to ensure they are still relevant.

Innovation
A supplier that doesn’t innovate and keep pace with changing requirements and technology will eventually fail and cease to exist. The Cloud is a great example of this and it seems that products that have not been developed with a ‘cloud first’ design are rapidly being considered obsolete and not worth investing in. As outlined before, solutions that require additional software, are browser specific, run through emulators without have integration and mobile options should be avoided.

Another aspect of innovation in 2018 is speed and agility. The best suppliers will have moved away from proprietary technology that limits future progress and adopted an Agile approach to software development, ensuring they can keep up with the ever changing world and Public Sector requirements. It is normal to expect that software releases are measured in two week Sprints (absolutely no more than four weeks) and that new features and functionality can be delivered in weeks rather than months and years. You only need to look at the rate of updates through the Apple or Android stores to see the speed at which the world’s best software companies now innovate.