Magazine Article | November 28, 2012

Cloud Solutions Bring New Functionality To Field Service

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By Brian Albright, Field Technologies magazine

Field service marks the intersection of cloud, mobility, and social technologies.

The continued adoption of mobile devices in the enterprise and an increasing reliance on always-connected personnel to drive improvements in field service operations have made cloud-based software solutions more appealing to enterprise users of all sizes. The proliferation of mobile applications for personal use has helped drive demand for similar functionality in line-of-business applications, while the lower start-up and support costs appeal to resource-strapped IT departments.

“With technology moving literally at the speed of light and new innovations hitting the market every hour of every day, the only way not to be left behind in the realm of software is to jump into the cloud,” says Yuval Brisker, cofounder and CEO of TOA Technologies. “This is especially true of field service solutions because they represent the juncture of mobile, social, and cloud technologies. Field workforces represent the perfect user group for adopting the cloud that is driving much of this innovation.”

Based on their experience with personal mobile devices, managers and field personnel are more likely to trust cloud-based or SaaS solutions than they were a few years ago, and companies are more familiar with the benefits and risks inherent in cloud solutions. Other developments have also encouraged adoption.

"Two primary points of evolution have been the movement to true native apps for mobile users and a full SaaS billing model for all users," says Karl Schneider, VP of marketing at FieldAware. "Many offerings still include browser-based apps for mobile users, but native apps are quickly gaining ground. Similarly, many vendors still require substantial up-front investment for their solutions — potentially with monthly fees for mobile access — but there is a migration to bundle complete solutions in a recurring monthly sum."

Cloud-based solutions aren't just saving costs and making deployment easier. Using cloud resources can help make these field service solutions perform better. Consider the processing power needed for routing and dispatching algorithms that are used to schedule service technicians. These can require massive processing horsepower that is only required for a short period of time.

"For such a scenario, cloud lends itself perfectly since the vendor can have access to massive resources spread amongst many users," says Jim Hare, senior VP at FieldOne Systems. "These new routing algorithms enable cloud-based field service solutions to consider tens of thousands of potential combinations and identify the optimum solution — and then do it all over again a moment later as circumstances change."

What's Driving Cloud Adoption?
More companies are open to cloud solutions because the technology is familiar. "Users are ready to trust what happens in the cloud more than ever before," says Stephen Chambers, president of Service Skeds. "There were a large number of misconceptions about the cloud when it was first revealed, but now more people are beginning to accept the software."

Solutions can be deployed quickly and with minimal up-front spend. "With a cloud application, the company no longer needs to make a significant investment in hardware and further burden its IT resources," Hare says. "We have seen the business operations group ready to deploy a solution while its internal IT resources were unavailable for months, so the business and service problems could not be addressed in the time critical for it to meet its customer expectations."

A lower up-front investment is critical for small and midsize businesses. "The ease of implementation via Web browser access and native mobile apps helps to minimize the effort and expense of getting a company up and running," Schneider says.

Cloud solutions also provide flexibility for companies that see swings in the size of their workforce. "Many large enterprises outsource certain services, relying heavily on contractors to handle surges in workflow," Brisker says. "Cloud-based solutions adapt easily to such hybrid workforces and scale easily, expanding or contracting as the workforce expands or contracts."

Data Security Is A Top Concern
The biggest concern most end users still have centers around data security and control. "Some companies that currently have premise-based solutions for service automation, accounting, inventory, etc. tend to be concerned about data security in the cloud because they can't physically put their hands on the server where their data is stored," Schneider says. "Companies that have little or no existing automation often have the same concern because it is an extension of not being able to ‘hold' their business in the form of a paper work order."

Companies should ask providers questions about their cloud-based solutions. Does it run in a public or private cloud? Can the provider offer a service level agreement or guarantee uptime? Does the vendor have a proven track record in providing cloud services to businesses that are similar to yours? "With the proper hosting facilities and welldesigned IT architecture, cloud-based solutions are actually far more secure and far more reliable than on-premises software and servers," Brisker says.

Education is another stumbling block. Even though deploying cloud solutions can be easier and less costly, companies still need to do all of the data configuration and employee training that would be required for an on-premise solution. "Challenges that are likely to be encountered are lack of experience with these services by technicians and overall lack of knowledge about the cloud," Chambers says. "These can be overcome by giving technicians experience with this software and training from experts in cloud-based services."

Ultimately, Brisker adds, the best mobile and cloud technology does a good job connecting people. "When users realize and embrace this goal from the very beginning, rollout goes smoothly and successfully," he says. "The ability to deliver service everywhere depends on effectively linking cloud, mobile, and social technology. Service providers exploring a cloud-based solution should consider this and its implications for their choice of mobile device and the software that will run on it."