Cloud Control, Make it Work For You 

In Business applications based on the cloud, the normal way of working is a browser to a server, epitomised by systems such as Salesforce. Benjamin Dyer, CEO of Powered Now, discusses how to extend this to industries that dont fit the standard model.

The computer industry goes in cycles. First, there was the mainframe. This was guarded by “The Operators” – the high priests of the expensive air conditioned and corporate owned data centre. You submitted a pack of punched cards and if you were lucky you got them back with some printouts the next day. My business partner is actually so old that he remembers those days.

Next came “time sharing”. You could dial up a data centre from a dumb terminal over a telephone line and pay by the minute. The problem was that line speeds meant a few characters were all that could be sent and received.

The big change came with the mass produced PC that could run in any office environment. Incorporates, this morphed into client-server setups involving both PCs and mainframe servers.

Then came the internet. Suddenly anyone could afford a connection and any resource could be accessed from everywhere. With always-on broadband, 3G and 4G followed by the smartphone revolution, the possibilities have exploded.

[easy-tweet tweet=”AWS and Salesforce are growing at unprecedented rates. ” hashtags=”AWS,Cloud”]

Now, we have reached the cloud world. Large server sales are down year on year. AWS and Salesforce are growing at unprecedented rates. Microsoft and Google are playing catch up.

Increasingly, everything happens in the cloud. The new model is somewhat like the mainframe all over again. However, this “mainframe” is composed of every single internet-connected server in the world and the “terminals” consist of every computing device on the planet. Compared with the previous setup, everything is available from anywhere, always on and video has replaced text. The cost is hugely less and this means that most people in the world can benefit.

There’s just one small problem. The mobile internet isn’t always on.

Anyone who, like me, makes frequent train journeys knows this. Yes, the net is often available. But no, not always.

My company, Powered Now, builds apps for trade businesses like electrical contractors, builders, gas engineers, roofers and much more. These businesses are mobile so the mobile web is ideal. Smartphones and tablets are easy to use and freely available so the time is right to computerise this industry, one of the least automated in the world. Invoicing is at the heart of what we do, but there is also team chat, team tracking, shared diaries and much more.

There are nearly a million trade businesses in the UK alone and hundreds of thousands have multiple employees. But they are businesses. Even the smallest need their system to work 100% of the time. This isn’t a game, it isn’t entertainment, it’s mission critical. Mistakes can cost thousands or even tens of thousands of pounds. Lost data might mean that the tax man gets on their backs.

So the nearly-always-on internet isn’t good enough. These apps need to work when there is no signal. And by work that doesn’t just mean the ability to capture data, they must be able to provide information in the field and process data that is input. When a trading company can raise a quotation when still outside the client’s house and send it ten minutes after leaving, they will often win the business just by impressing with their efficiency. But it means the data stored locally must be comprehensive.

We’ve been deploying this model for years. It’s nice to have the benefit confirmed by Instagram who has just announced an offline mode for Android.

At the same time, local storage isn’t enough. Devices can be lost, stolen or broken particularly in the hostile environment of a building site. When teams are out in the field, management needs to know where they are, at least in order to know who to send if there’s an emergency call out for a gas leak, electrical failure or broken lock.

[easy-tweet tweet=”We think of ourselves as a hybrid system with the cloud at the heart” hashtags=”Cloud, Hybrid”]

This means that while local storage is necessary, the same information needs to be available both centrally and to other team members. And file transfer won’t cut it, data needs to be as up-to-date as possible. It means a record, or row, level synchronisation between all devices.

There are several practical questions, such as what to do about the services you have mashed up with, what about the unique numbering of documents, how do you recover from lost/broken devices and what to do when you run out of storage on any device? That’s before you even think about the potential collision in data updates when devices are offline.

These are the challenges that my company, Powered Now, has had to overcome in building a system tailored for the field trade industry.

It works when there is no signal, but safely uploads and downloads any outstanding information as soon as a signal becomes available. Some data can only be allocated in the cloud, so the system can deal with some uncertainty. Any services depending on APIs and therefore requiring a signal must be limited to those that are not vital for day-to-day operation. Mashed up services must be accessed via a message queue so that as far as a possible failure in any of these services does not cause degradation in the overall ecosystem. The system has to work across Macs, PCs, Android phones and tablets plus iPhones and iPads.

So is this a cloud system? Absolutely, we are dependent on the cloud. The cloud gives us low cost highly reliable backup, synchronisation capabilities and access to third party services. It also provides centralised reporting. We couldn’t have built the system without the cloud. At the same time, we are a new breed. We can run when the cloud is down because we have to operate when our customers have no signal.

We think of ourselves as a hybrid system with the cloud at the heart.

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