Construction project management is an industry of change. Projects are always starting and finishing but no two projects are ever the same. On top of this, companies grow and slow and then grow again, they engage in joint ventures, economic circumstances change. All of this makes it extremely difficult to plan for the future, but it is in this environment that cloud computing excels.
What is cloud computing?
Cloud computing offers benefits such as rapid deployment, lower maintenance and scalable licensing, but what is ‘the cloud’ and how does it affect successful project delivery and the bottom line?
The cloud is a great buzzword. It sounds friendly, approachable and has nice fuzzy connotations. It’s much more interesting than some of the incomprehensible IT jargon and phrases of recent years. Unfortunately, it’s also very poorly defined. Ask three different vendors for their interpretation of what the cloud is and you’re likely to get three different answers.
Most definitions mention the provision of services via the internet. Some talk about the services being ‘on demand’. Others include words and phrases such as ‘scalable’, ‘flexible’ and ‘shared resources’. If you’re technically inclined, these definitions may explain a great deal, but for the average business person they are simply confusing. So how do you define the cloud in a way that everyone understands?
In a recent presentation, one of my colleagues suggested that the cloud is “software you don’t have to install on your computer”. If you think about some of the high profile examples of cloud computing—Salesforce, Gmail, Google Docs, Facebook and Flickr—it’s an apt description. All of these are applications that work on your computer but the software is hosted, or loaded and maintained, on a server elsewhere and accessed via the internet.
Cloud computing is typically organised in three layers. The bottom layer, which the average user rarely sees, is all about infrastructure such as the hardware, memory and bandwidth of the network. Cloud services for this layer are called infrastructure as a service (IaaS). Next comes platform as a service (PaaS), the middle layer which looks after the software platform such as the operating system.
Finally, there’s the topmost layer, software as a service (SaaS). This is the part of the cloud with which the average employee interacts. It’s the service that ensures laptop or desktop access to everything from spreadsheets and email to job costing and project management applications.
Cloud computing vendors offer services addressing each of the three layers. They help companies to quickly deploy solutions and get those solutions out to users. What’s more, they handle the security, backups and ongoing maintenance such as software upgrades. Cloud vendors charge for their services on a subscription basis, with subscriptions usually being paid monthly.
The IT benefits
If you compare using cloud services to hosting your own applications, there are four general benefits:
- Speed of deployment. To host an application on your own premises requires time to set up the hardware, other infrastructure and the actual software. Using the cloud however, once you’ve decided on a project, you can have the software up and running within a day or two.
- Ease of set-up and maintenance. Both of these activities become the cloud provider’s responsibility, rather than another burden on your IT staff.
- Reduced operating expenses due to decreased demand on existing staff.
- Professional IT and software expertise on tap, providing you select the right vendor.
What’s in it for the construction contractor?
For a construction project management contractor, all of these IT benefits ensure that you have the time, resources and focus to maximise your core competency. As a project construction manager you hire trade contractors because it lowers cost and risk for your business, allowing you to focus on construction management. Selecting the right vendor for cloud services is like choosing the right contractors.
In addition, the complexity of building has evolved greatly over the past 50 years. To complete design and construction within a reasonable time frame today, contractors have begun to specialise, leading to the rise, for example, of healthcare construction specialists and hospitality specialists.
Similar to the building industry, technology has evolved. Twenty years ago establishing an IT capability may have been as simple as purchasing an off-the-shelf software application and loading it onto your computer or server. Today’s it’s different. Now you have to worry about network vulnerabilities, backups, viruses and so on. Just like construction, technology has become more complex and its management requires greater resources. Cloud computing is gaining interest because it removes technology as a distraction and allows businesses to focus on what they are good at.
What to look for in a vendor
If you are thinking of moving your IT systems to the cloud, evaluate vendors carefully as there are a few key things to consider:
- Is the vendor experienced in your applications, platforms and your industry?
- Do they have a reputation for reliability?
- Can they guarantee the uptime, performance and responsiveness you require in a service level agreement?
- Does the provider offer comprehensive security services including virus scanning, intrusion detection and enforced password policies?
- Do they have a disaster recovery plan in place?
- How much control will you have over upgrades before they go live? You’ll ideally want to preview and prepare for changes to ensure they don’t disrupt your business.
- What happens if the network goes down or if staff are unable to obtain internet access? Can they use the systems offline?
Cloud computing offers extraordinary flexibility, enabling you to quickly adapt your IT systems so that they can support changing business circumstances. Not bad for software you don’t have to install on your computer.