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One example of “software as a service” cloud-based applications is the Trimble GeoManager, which offers visibility into day-to-day fleet operations to identify, manage, and improve areas such as driver safety, customer service, back office administration, fuel use, and fleet efficiency. According to Trimble, organizations using GeoManager have increased productivity by up to 30%, dispatch efficiency up to 60%, and cut overtime expenses up to 70% — all without a significant initial investment in their in-house computing capabilities. Photo: Trimble Field Service Management

As organizations look to save money on information technology (IT) costs, cloud computing has proven to be a popular method for IT efficiency and cost savings. Whether your organization is hoping to cut costs on running applications, or to store GIS data without the hassle of purchasing new equipment and taking up additional in-house resources, cloud computing may be the answer.

In very general terms, cloud computing is hardware and software pooled in a hosted infrastructure provided by a vendor that can be accessed over the Internet somewhere beyond your organization's firewall (security). Typically a cloud service provider runs the Internet-based service and sells its use on a pay-per-use basis or as a subscription. These vendors offer application services or computing power to consumers, businesses, or public entities. Because cloud providers offer hosted data storage, the customer doesn't need to use its own server for storage.

The customer's data resides in the cloud, making it easy to access anywhere and anytime. You can access the cloud in the same way you access the Internet: via a computer, a tablet, or a handheld device that connects to the Internet. For example, if you use Web-based e-mail such as Google Mail, you are already accessing the cloud.

The primary benefit of cloud computing is that it lets you increase your computing capabilities while reducing the cost of ownership associated with equipment, licenses, storage, and IT personnel. For medium to large entities, those costs of ownership include not only the hardware and software, but also the space, power, and technical support to house, run, and maintain a high-capacity cloud environment.

Cloud computing services

In-house IT systems have become extremely complex and expensive to maintain, with users operating different versions of software and support across the applications. Cloud computing reduces complexity; it leverages a combination of on-demand and self-managed virtual infrastructure as a service. The cloud also offers the flexibility to add and remove services and users as needed. For organizations without the budget to regularly upgrade hardware and software, moving to the cloud can help keep those services updated without additional costs.

Organizations can select different options when choosing a cloud service. Depending on their needs, they can choose from the following.

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) — a central hosting service for specialized application software and its associated data, which is accessed through a Web browser. Using multitenant architecture, SaaS provides a single application to thousands of customers through their browsers. The software runs on a cloud server, not on your local machine. This approach is extremely flexible to meet changing work demands; the load can also be shared over multiple virtual machines using load balancers to distribute the work. Examples of this type of service are customer relationship management associated with sales activities (i.e., Salesforce.com) and mobile solutions for managing fleets and mobile workforces (i.e., Trimble GeoManager, see caption on page 48).

Wayne Johnson, general manager of Trimble Field Service Management, Global Channel Alliances, says, “The SaaS form of cloud computing is well suited to mobile field operations such as utility services. Our customers can access our mobile worker management, cloud-based solutions at any time and manage their operations in real time.”

Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) — the cloud service provider owns and houses the infrastructure — servers, storage devices, networking components — and provides the appropriate services to users. The computing resources typically are located in large data centers owned and operated by the cloud service providers. Customers are billed based on usage. Examples of IaaS services include:

  • Esri's GIS SaaS tools and data applications can be used in the cloud but don't require a GIS expert.
  • Amazon'sElastic Compute Cloud, EC2, provides customized compute capacity.

Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) — delivers development environments as a service. This includes all of the components required to support the life cycle of building and delivering Web applications: programming languages, testing, and debugging capabilities. Developers can build their applications, run them on the provider's infrastructure, and then deliver the applications to their users over the Internet.

Google Apps and VMWare are examples of platform services providers. Organizations with customized Web applications, i.e., managing payroll, can leverage PaaS so applications are run on a provider's infrastructure, giving the organization more robust support.