On Cloud Nine?

First things first: it's not an actual cloud.  That's just the deliberately vague metaphor used to describe the internet itself.  More specifically, it refers to the myriad data centres across the world where your data is housed when you elect to store it on servers outside of your own network.  It's such a vast interconnected web of systems that being specific about where the data is stored is close to impossible, and illustrating it even more difficult.  Hence, both in terminology and in graphical presentation, the use of the word cloud.

Nevertheless, the impact of cloud computing on the market for computer aided FM software is already significant - and the ramifications of it are only just starting to be felt.  CAFM systems written to be accessed via the cloud are leading to significant improvements in the way users interact with their software.  They promise much in the way that they can move contextually relevant information to and from other systems in an organisation.  If the estimates are correct that 75 per cent of potential CAFM users are still using spreadsheets as their main means of storing and analysing performance.  If so, the current burst of creativity caused by the move to cloud-based systems might just provide the push needed to make take-up of CAFM software more extensive.

Stratospheric rise
It's been more than a decade since the first web-based versions of CAFM software packages hit the market.  But only a few years have elapsed since the great customer boom in cloud-accessed data that can be traced more or less directly to the introduction of Apple's iPhone.  With email, entertainment and even video streamed from all over the place, the cloud has taken off as a buzzword; awareness of what the cloud actually comprises might be low, but use of it is undoubtedly high.

Historically, CAFM software has been based on desktop PC's and backed-up to a company's own servers.  By moving to a model in which the software is via a web browser from a central source, organisations effectively elect to subscribe to the software as a service.  Potentially, this means a more manageable monthly subscription that can be varied, depending on the number of users involved, although any project to move from older CAFM packages to a web-accessed alternative will come at a cost.

So the cloud is where this new breed of CAFM software can be stored, but equally important is the way that it's being accessed.  Proprietary software needs installing directly onto PC's and has to be administered by the IT department.  By contract, cloud-based CAFM is accessed through a standard web browser; no data need be written to the hard disk on the computer using it, and anyone with a standard web browser needs only a web address and password to access it.

This has two powerful liberating effects; firstly, developers can tweak their software and see those tweaks take immediate effect for all users of their product.  Secondly, the web browser can detect the device it's being run on and present information relevant to that device.  So, if you open it on an iPad, you'll see a touch-friendly interface; on a desktop PC, it'll come up as a standard ‘dashboard' view to be accessed by mouse and keyboard, on smart phones, you get a minimalist screen to cope with the restricted size of the device - all decided automatically by the software as it loads.

This has meant that the way CAFM companies go about constructing their products has been transformed.  Developers are now spending more time producing the front ends of their systems, using a series of standardised tools, which have made it easier to build in the automatic resizing of interfaces.

Fitting the bill
The development of mobile operating systems on smart phones and tablets has been liberating for FM firms seeking to ensure accuracy of data input and easy access from hitherto inaccessible areas on site.  Unlike their desktop cousins, these cloud-accessed products need to be designed with the limitations of mobile hardware in mind.  Just as it's unlikely that anyone would use something other than a desktop PC or laptop to access the full dashboard functionality of a CAFM package, so the version accessed through a browser on a tablet PC needs to be written to recognise the processor and bandwidth limitations.

That said, things that were impossible to do with browser-based systems just a few years ago are now possible, such as the ability to capture signatures.  This makes is easier to consider the use of tablets as an input device - although FSI's Business Development Director Compton Darlington warns against a headlong rush towards tablets.  For one thing, he says, how will their glossy tablet touch screen hold up when used by oily-fingered technicians?

FSI, the company behind the Concept™ range of CAFM products, has devised a widget-based approach in which different functionality is loaded to memory only as required by the user, through a drag and drop interface.  So, if the user only needs to deal with conference room booking, that's the only module taking up processor speed.

There is understandable reluctance to have mission-critical data residing outside of the business on an anonymous server, whomever the host is.  Major news stories in the consumer space fan the flames of this concern; games console manufacturers Microsoft and Sony have both suffered from high-profile security breaches in the past year.  CAFM providers work to ensure that their products are hosted securely in data centres that meet required security levels, and some providers suggest that security is more a question of potential users coming to terms with the new landscape and the quality of the hosting security on offer.

On the horizon
As the move towards cloud-based systems accelerates, CAFM developers see two key trends emerging: levels of integration with other systems, and specificity of user interface.

CAFM already interacts with other software systems such as HR, accounts, energy control and building management systems (BMS).  What's new is the flexibility of these connections, that's a by-product of the steady move to cloud-accessed software (‘web services' is the term for a commonly accepted set of standards that allow different programmes to talk to and share information with each other.

At FSI, Compton Darlington sees this developing further.  CAFM's interaction between systems belonging to the same organisation will extend out to the systems belonging to other suppliers serving that organisation.  "One of the big trends we see happening is the pushing-out of CAFM data into the portals of other systems in the supply chain, updating information that's pertinent to those systems," say Darlington.  He cites the example of an HR system flagging up the availability of a meeting room as a result of its connection to the CAFM package.

This, says Darlington, is "true information transparency" that will ultimately reduce the amount of paper going back and forth outside of systems.  "It extends the reach of CAFM.  You'll see lots of service providers opening up to their client base."  As different programmes advise on the status of other systems operating for that organisation, a richer quality of data is made available to the FM and beyond.

At FMx, the company behind the CAFM Explorer product range, Managing Director Tony Leppard agrees that levels of integration will be a key area of future product development.  "Our user group reports to us that integration is increasingly important to them; they want the ability to ‘plug and play' CAFM Explorer into any system, be in the BMS, energy control, benchmarking tool or HR.  In fact, you always want the CAFM systems to be talking to a HR system.  As soon as someone joins or leaves an organisation, that information needs to come in or out of the CAFM system."

Leppard also sees future systems being more focused on each individual user's job function.  Producing a multiplicity of interfaces that are role-based is made easier by their being designed for access through a web browser; developers can focus their time on producing interfaces that match the specific needs of, for example, a help-desk user, room booking administrator or mobile engineer.

The first web-based CAFM product came to market just under a decade ago, but over the next three to five years the pace of change will accelerate as more integration is demanded and the number of capable and secure mobile devices proliferates.  As potential clients become more focused on how their data can be shared, cloud computing and CAFM will provide ever more flexible solutions.

Further info
Compton Darlington is business development director, FSI (FM Solutions) Limited  www.fsifm.com