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The Cloud

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By Oscar R. Cantu’

Cloud computing is not quite as omnipresent as the computer in Star Trek, but…give it time.  Cloud computing, or “the cloud,” is an interconnected group of powerful computers that collectively store data redundantly, host various services, and provide security.

To the geospatial community, the cloud has already proven itself by acting as a password-protected hub that offers various services to companies of all sizes.  In a few years, the cloud has improved communication among all project team members and streamlined common workflows that are critical for the construction, surveying, and mapping industries.

But, how did we get here?

To give perspective on the benefits of the cloud, a quick review of the past 60 years of technological evolution can provide the backstory to how the cloud came to fruition and provide insights for what it can offer.

Dial back to the 1960’s, which is when modern commercial computing was born. Giant mainframe computers filled an entire room or data center. There were no monitors, not even a computer mouse, and there definitely wasn’t “an app for that” back then.  Data was stored and fed to the mainframe through magnetic tape drives and thick decks of punch cards that needed to be in precise order to work.

In 1977, Apple introduced the Apple II home microcomputer, which started the migration of computers from the workplace into homes. 

In 1982, the Commodore 64, which took its name from its 64 kilobytes (65,536 bytes) of RAM, was introduced and became the highest-selling single computer model of all time. Independent estimates place the actual number of C64 computers sold were between 10 and 17 million units. At $595 each, the Commodore 64 not only ended up in more homes, it expanded the technological revolution because peripherals like printers and disk drives could be connected to them.

Then technological advancements in the 1990’s began to permeate everyday life.  From the comfort of their homes, people could effortlessly and instantly communicate with other computers in other homes through the Internet. This was a huge leap forward – smaller, better, faster computers -- and most of them interconnected.  Looking back, the decade of the 1990’s clearly brought the greatest and fastest advancement in technology in the history of humankind.

The first decade of the 2000’s rushed in even smaller and more powerful laptops, USB flash drives on key chains, hand-held music players, wireless Wi-Fi Internet connectivity, and convenient smartphones.  By this time, the global society became completely comfortable with technology.  In fact, it has permeated both business and personal lives.

In the current decade of the 2010’s, there is a slower yet more consistent stream of new products entering the marketplace.  Sleek and powerful smartphones are used less for actual phone calls and more for quick text messaging, quality photo and video capturing and instant global sharing, as well as the ability to visually navigate step-by-step to favorite restaurants.  Simply amazing.

Six short decades brought about tremendous change, growth, and evolution in how people live and work.  Powerful and pocket-sized technology now allows people to communicate seamlessly across the globe. Everyone – in one way or another – has access to the Internet. Sending an email from Florida to Japan is not impressive any longer… in fact, it’s actually expected.

Currently, it is easy to see how technology is fully integrated into people’s everyday lives. It is no longer looked at negatively to be sitting at a computer all day. Why? Because that is how lives are lived now, how productive and profitable work gets done, and how the world has changed.

On a global scale, for example, people trust and rely on secure online banking, enjoy a larger variety of products and services through online shopping, quickly order pizza, communicate with grandparents, socialize, and conduct real business. Smartphones and tablets have completely replaced clipboards and printed files. Rolled up paper plans for a building or a job site are becoming a thing of the past.

At the same time, instant field-to-office communication is becoming more important in a world of increasingly demanding deadlines. This technological evolution is no longer novel and interesting -- it is now expected for being productive and achieving business goals.

The cloud and geospatial industries

So where does the cloud fit in the geospatial industry? Quite simply, it is the next technological step… the safe and secure ability to share information and project related data in real time.  

However, the cloud is not merely FTP (file transfer protocol) data sharing. The technological ability to send and share data files has been around for decades.  Simple file transfer functionality is not what the cloud is about.

Instead, a proven value of the cloud is owning and using a private cloud-based company account.  By representing a company in the cloud, geo-referenced projects (future, current, and completed) now serve as containers for all related files.  Plus, since these projects are geo-referenced, they are easily plotted on top of a vivid satellite image that streams in from a separate cloud service.  By adopting new cloud-based workflows, the groundwork is laid for a complete project management system.  A system that is secure and flexible and that will only grow.

We are now at the point where companies will want to carve out a chunk of the cloud to own and use privately. A comparable analogy might be to own a car versus using public transportation. With a car, there’s the option to leave at will, setting the interior temperature, listening to whatever music, and choosing the route to travel. However, with public transportation there is far less control and a seatmate that may or may not be your preferred choice.

Compared to private cloud-based company accounts, the open Internet can seem like loud and uncontrolled chaos, filled with websites demanding attention, threat of viruses, and daily distractions.  The loud and public transportation bus of the Internet has now been replaced with private cloud-based company accounts.

A company that secures and adopts a chunk of the cloud can look back after a year of implementation and see dramatic improvements in workflow and daily processes. A cloud-based business will be faster and more efficient at what it does.

The cloud is all about services.  Services that provide access and security for communication, office processes, centralized file storage, entertainment, and more.  And recall that for maintenance and reliability, the cloud features a cluster or hive of interconnected computers that provide true redundancy. Therefore, if one server goes down the others take over – a company’s data and archives are never at risk and are never lost.

The future is here

The cloud is not just in the future -- the cloud is here now. The novelty of the cloud has faded away and the expectation of readily available, ever-present services is now the reality.  Moving forward, the global society will “expect” the cloud and its services to be constantly available.

In a few years, the cloud will be as common and expected as electricity. Like someone walking into a dark room and  patting the wall, looking for the light switch – electricity is taken for granted. No one questions how electricity is made or how it got there in the room. The common expectation of electricity always being present and available is very much how it will be for cloud computing.

As with any new innovation, fears will diminish as the need grows. Business thinking and planning will shift from terms of non-cloud tasks versus cloud-oriented tasks.  Business owners and department managers looking to hire the next crop of employees will notice that current college graduates have not just become accustomed to cloud technology, they expect it.

This whole backstory of technological evolution and the emergence of the cloud leads to the big question: How can the cloud help with profitable projects in the survey and construction industries?

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Things to know about switching 

The term “cloud computing” is a broad umbrella under which many subdivisions fall.  Construction contractors, land surveyors, GIS professionals, and 3D model builders will encounter specific cloud-based applications or services being offered via subscription.

One such service is Topcon’s MAGNET® Enterprise from Topcon, which offers the ability to pause and represent companies of all sizes within their own private cloud-based company account.  At the core of the MAGNET system of software solutions, MAGNET Enterprise allows managers to start with a simple street address and quickly create geo-referenced projects with the click of a mouse or tap of the finger.  Managers can then assign employees (think permissions) to specific projects and tasks, and instantly have a dashboard to check any project’s status. It is designed to function as a connection hub for collaboration and to keep projects moving forward. Additionally, managers can have access to the details of past projects – timelines, who worked on the projects, and costs – which are archived for future reference.

With the cloud, there is the easy access and secure exchange of information between the common organization triangle of manager, office, and field staff for design changes and project updates. Before company accounts in the cloud were available, if there was a need to communicate information to the field -- e.g., a design change -- there were three options: send an email, deliver a thumb drive, or make a phone call. Whatever method was used took time, which had an eventual impact on productivity and a project’s overall profitability.

The next big thing

Cloud surfing?  It’s super easy to do and extremely valuable.  The term cloud surfing describes the option of connecting independent cloud services to each other.  For example, Autodesk offers the no-cost cloud service of AutoCAD 360.  Through it, users can view, create, edit, and share drawings files at no cost using smartphones, tablets or desktop devices.

MAGNET Enterprise supports cloud surfing by offering the ability to add AutoCAD 360 service credentials.  Working within MAGNET Enterprise, users can then easily “point to” Autodesk’s cloud for additional file storage and instant sharing.

MAGNET Enterprise cloud surfing connections are realized in the common scenario of designers in the office needing to deliver a change with special instructions to workers at an active jobsite. It makes no difference if the job site is across the street or on the other side of the globe.

Using any web browser, updated drawing files can be uploaded to services like AutoCAD 360 for quick viewing and potential redline edits.  Project managers can then log into their private MAGNET Enterprise company account, click on the AutoCAD 360 option, and see all files within their AutoCAD 360 account.  Meanwhile, field crew members at a jobsite can log into their private cloud-based company account and download the new drawing.

The value of this cloud surfing connection becomes apparent when employees no longer need to waste time in traffic or wait to get back to the office to discuss what has been done on a project.  Direct data sharing to any project site is now instantly and easily.

Project data can flow in both directions.  Meaning, both office staff and field crews have access to upload and download project related files. By having all project members use the same cloud-based project inbox, which serves as an instant backup as well.  Because data is being shared instantly, results can be seen immediately.

In the old days (only a few years ago), raw files were moved between the office and field via whatever means were available at the time. Now there is a virtual pipeline of information exchange to and from project sites.

Managers can leverage cloud-based company accounts as a project coordination tool.  Within MAGNET Enterprise, managers have an at-a-glance dashboard to instantly see all of the company’s projects intuitively plotted on top of a streaming satellite image background.  Confidence is bolstered after quick verification of the fieldwork that has been done so far, as well as all the other jobs in process.

The value of a private cloud-based company account can include the following:

  • Managers stay notified even while traveling
  • Private and instant intra-company chat messaging
  • Create and manage geo-referenced projects
  • Cloud surfing with no cost AutoCAD 360 service
  • Quick activity reports for field jobs
  • Ability to manage crews on multiple sites and visualize locations of all crews at any time
  • Check weather forecasts
  • Verify time zone differences
  • Check project history to see if previous work has been completed nearby (a simple click on a project’s pushpin location on a map can reveal which project it was, client name, who worked on it, when it was completed, and the quality of results).
  • All of the above can save time and money

Security concerns

For those who are new to the cloud and the services that are offered, there are generally two reactions:  raised eyebrows acknowledging the impressiveness of cloud technology, followed quickly with concerns about the security. 

It is important to understand that access to a private cloud-based company account is only accomplished through a secure login.  An employee’s e-mail and custom password functions as a fingerprint for gaining access, and access only to the specific project to which the employee has been assigned.  Also, remember that the parallel benefit of cloud systems is that all data is redundantly located in many places.

The near future

While the future is not set in stone, experts tend to agree on the following predictions for cloud-based computing:

  1. In a short three years from now, no one will be talking about the cloud.  It will have become the new normal.
  2. There will in fact be many clouds and companies / users will be able to customize the personal cloud environment to precisely fit unique needs. There will not be cumbersome giant generic software applications intending to meet disparate needs of users all over the world.
  3. In the future, the question that will be asked to qualify any software or services under consideration, “Is it cloud enabled and does it have the flexibility to meet our specific needs?”

The future is closer than one might think.  Now is the time. It’s time to put one’s “head in the clouds”.

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