Opinion: Savings, Security in the Cloud

By Tom Heine


Aljex Software Inc.

This Opinion piece appears in the Aug. 16 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

Cloud computing is fast, reliable, inexpensive and swiftly growing in popularity — except in trucking. Trucking’s slower adoption of cloud computing has most to do with tradition. But that’s bound to change as the industry realizes the advantages of a technology that can be set up tomorrow, completes automatic upgrades overnight, charges only for features you actually use and does it all for a comparatively modest monthly fee that includes backups and updates — a welcome alternative to paying tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars up front for new software loaded with expensive and largely unwanted extras.

The phrase “cloud computing” is used to describe software and data accessed over the Internet by means of remote servers maintained in unspecified locations that might as well be somewhere up in the sky.

Cloud computing also is known as “hosted software” and “software as a service.” You may run into the latter under its acronym, SaaS. Another relevant acronym is ASP, for “application service provider.”

Cloud computing giants such as Google, Amazon and Salesforce.com enable large companies to run state-of-the-art software without maintaining servers and expensive networks. Plain-vanilla computers and Internet connections are all that’s needed. Companies trade high-cost, in-house information technology operations for low-cost cloud computing.

Actually, many fleets use Internet-based software all the time without thinking of it as cloud computing: for example, Web-based routing applications like ALK’s PCMiler or truck-stop scanning from Pegasus TransTech. Fleets also often use value-added networks such as Kleinschmidt or IBM Advantis to transmit information through an electronic data interface. And many use Web-based Global Positioning System facilitators such as Qualcomm and PeopleNet.

But with transportation management systems, fleets worry that critical information on remote servers can be exposed to risk, and they’re concerned about continuing payments instead of what they see as a one-time purchase of software.

The worriers are right about one thing: The Internet is dangerous. Recognizing that truth, however, they should acknowledge another: If their own computers and networks are connected to the Internet — and whose aren’t? — they’re already exposed to those risks.

Even if a fleet does not host a website on its own server, it’s still connected. Virtually everything on its network, even carefully firewall-protected material, is potentially subject to hacking. Critical data on a server down the hall can be compromised as surely as if it were on the other side of the world.

Internet security is a very expensive cat-and-mouse game. You’re up against crafty people with virtually unlimited resources, and whatever percentage of your IT budget goes toward Internet security, it’s not enough. Most fleets simply don’t have the in-house IT expertise they need for all the hours they need it.

Here’s a specific example: On the first Tuesday of every month, Microsoft distributes its Windows updates. Those updates should be installed right away because the process of alerting Microsoft customers to those vulnerabilities also alerts the computing underworld. The bad guys immediately try to exploit those openings.

If your IT guy is on vacation that Tuesday, you’re exposed until he comes back. But an off-site cloud-computing company immediately updates its software, protecting itself and its customers. These companies can afford top-drawer security because the cost is spread over many customers.

And about those ongoing payments: The idea of “one-time” software payments is misleading. When you buy, you still need to pay, month after month, for servers, support, upgrades and IT staff. In the cloud, however, upgrades and support are included, and you don’t need a server or IT personnel.

Fleets also worry about outages, the possibility that software in that amorphous cloud suddenly might become unavailable. Of course, an in-house network failure also can bring business to a halt and is more likely to happen than a failure in a cloud environment, where professionals monitor systems minute by minute, 24/7.

Then there is the eternal problem of backups. Sooner or later, every company will need a data backup. But most simply don’t have good ones. One fleet backed up its server to a tape drive daily, and one day, the server died. That’s when they discovered they had been religiously backing up a screen icon — and nothing more — every day for years.

Unless you read the backup logs every day, you don’t really know what you’ve backed up. Who is checking those logs every day? In our experience, not many companies do.

Even solid backups are no guarantee. A large 3PL, John J. Jerue Co., kept good backups in a fireproof safe. But when its building burned down in 2006, the fire department wouldn’t allow them to go in and retrieve the backups for three days until the investigation was finished.

Hosted software providers, on the other hand, generally back up customer data on redundant servers in several, widely separated locations automatically. That kind of backup keeps data as safe as they can possibly be.

There are many more advantages to hosted software, such as inexpensive EDI and anywhere-anytime access, and we believe trucking ultimately will see the future and finally join the movement to the cloud. It’s only a matter of time.

Aljex Software, Middlesex, N.J., provides applications for brokers, trucking, 3PLs, airfreight operations, port drayage and rail intermodal.