The Facility Technologist: Head In The Clouds

By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the March 2010 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

If you have read anything about the future of computing lately, you’ve heard the term “cloud computing.” Many facility managers (fms) have confessed utter confusion over the concept, and rightly so. The Internet is full of confusing definitions of the term. For example, Wikipedia defines cloud computing like this: cloud computing is Internet- (“cloud-”) based development and use of computer technology (“computing”). Conceptually, it is a paradigm shift whereby details are abstracted from the users who no longer have need of, expertise in, or control over the technology infrastructure “in the cloud” that supports them.

Believe it or not, this concept does have relevance when presented in the proper perspective. Here is a little background. The term “cloud” comes from the way network designers started to depict large networks when they drew diagrams. Network diagrams show hardware like servers and computers with lines connecting them to indicate which components are linked to each other. But when drawing a diagram of a very large network (sometimes nationwide), there was no need to show every detail—just the ones that were important to the diagram. So network designers started using a cloud-like shape to represent the bulk of the network.

One of the co-creators of Internet protocol, Vint Cerf (one of the great gods of the Internet) explains, “We always drew networks as amoeba-like things, because they had no fixed topology and typically covered varying geographic areas.”

For most fms, the cloud is essentially any external computing resource. For example, many CMMS are now available in a pay per month/per user model called “Software as a Service” (SaaS). The software is not inside the facility. It runs on a server at the CMMS vendor’s data center. It is accessed through the Cloud (in this case, the Internet) from a computer with a Web browser. With the SaaS model, a lowly CMMS is now the pinnacle of computing evolution—cloud computing.

So the cloud is just the Internet, right? It’s not that simple. Cloud computing can also be partially inside a facility and part outside it. For example, many vendors are starting to use cloud computing to build new architectures for facility systems. A good example is a visitor management system called iVisitor. The system is Web-based, so the software is hosted outside the facility. But it runs on visitor kiosks inside the facility and integrates to the access control system on a server—also inside the facility. So in this case, the cloud really extends into the facility itself.

The crucial point of cloud computing is that physical locations don’t really matter anymore. The ubiquitous Internet means IP-based systems can exist anywhere there is an Internet connection and can communicate with each other through the Web and local networks. As a result, fms don’t have to be tied to a physical location anymore; they can work from anywhere there is an Internet connection.

In addition to the end of location-centric computing, there are many benefits to cloud computing. One is that fms can have someone else handle the headaches of hardware and software, leaving them to focus on their jobs. By using hosted cloud systems, fms don’t have to buy equipment and worry about software installs, updates, and the endless security headaches that come with computers. Another benefit is that cloud computing costs less initially to implement because of the SaaS pricing model. There’s no upfront cost—only monthly fees.

But there are also risks in cloud computing. The most obvious is Internet connection quality and reliability; when the cloud disappears, so does the system. So it is imperative for fms using the cloud to have extremely reliable Internet connections—along with solid contingency plans in case the Internet connection goes down. Another risk is security of data moving across the Internet. Vendors must be required to use quality security protocols like Secure Socket Layer (SSL) and encryption. Finally, fms must remember that when they stop subscribing to SaaS systems, any data can be lost. Any SaaS systems used should have a provision that allows fms to download their data in a format (like MS Excel) that will allow them to keep it and import it into another system.

Fms always seem to be at the epicenter of technology, forever adapting to the next change. And just when they think they have it down, the whole thing makes another major turn. But take heart, because cloud computing promises to provide fantastic tools to make life easier and less complicated for fms. The future is coming fast, and it definitely looks to be a bit cloudy.

Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is a contributing author for BOMI Institute’s revised Technologies in Facility Management textbook. He works for System Development Integration, a Chicago, IL-based firm committed to improving the performance, quality, and reliability of client business through technology.

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