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Cloud conscious: Five key considerations before moving to the cloud


The cloud. It seems like everyone, from technology pundits to mothers in TV commercials, is talking about how computing is moving to the cloud – the delivery of applications to distributed users from a central location rather than putting software on individual PCs or local servers.

There is certainly an element of truth to that. Gartner estimates that the cloud market will reach $150 billion US by 2013. Among the reasons for this sudden interest in cloud-based computing and communications are the need for collaboration among the increasing number of remote and mobile workers, a desire to improve customer service, and the ever-present goals of improving operational excellence while driving down technology equipment and management costs.

But what does that really mean for manufacturers? Do you need to abandon your current technology investment and move it to the cloud? If you don’t perform a complete rip-and-replace right now, do you risk being left behind and losing market share to more cloud-savvy competitors?

That’s certainly the way the so-called experts make it sound. Yet many of those with their heads firmly entrenched in the cloud are choosing to ignore the realities of business, in general, and manufacturing, in particular. To help you decide whether you’re ready to move to the cloud, here are some important elements to consider.

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1. Distributed vs. centralized enterprise
The first consideration should be whether your company has multiple locations or everything under one roof. If you have a single location, and that’s all you plan to have, you may not need a cloud-based solution. But if you have one or two primary locations and several satellites (like most mid- to large-sized manufacturers), or a significant number of mobile workers, moving to the cloud simplifies management of communications and applications – which, in turn, improves collaboration between employees.

With cloud-based unified communications, for example, the technology is hosted in a single location and services are then delivered to the others. This method eliminates the need to have IT staff in each location, or have them travel between locations to provide support. It also makes it easier to keep software and services up-to-date since the central host is being updated rather than each individual user’s equipment. Users are able to work together more efficiently through features such as web conferencing, and manage their individual communication needs in a way that fits the work they perform.

2. IT staff size and capabilities
The next consideration is the size of your IT staff. In the past few years, many manufacturers have pared their IT staff, particularly in maintenance functions. Additionally, while technology has continued to advance at an ever-accelerating pace, very little has been spent on training or upgrading skill sets. As a result, as we come out of the economic downturn, your IT staff may not be properly prepared to help you take advantage of new technologies internally – especially with the complexities and robust security requirements of today’s communications technologies.

Cloud-based computing solves that issue because the burden of keeping up with technology advances is shifted to the service provider. Your staff can continue to focus on difference-making projects, while commodity services (such as voice and video) are managed by outside specialists in those areas. You maintain overall control, but don’t have to expend staff time (and budget) to keep commodity services at peak levels.

3. Prepare the infrastructure – ditch the public Internet
Once you’ve determined that the cloud is right for your enterprise, it’s important to look at your network infrastructure. Networks at distributed manufacturing companies are often a hodgepodge of carriers and equipment that were built over a period of time. They were often based more on expediency than an enterprise-level plan.

With cloud computing, an inadequate infrastructure can quickly become overwhelmed by the sudden up-tick in voice, video and data traffic. When that occurs, you will become frustrated and will experience a level of service from your cloud-based applications that doesn’t meet your expectations.    

But there’s more to it than bumping up bandwidth. Using the public Internet as the basis for your cloud is leaving a lot to chance. Despite improvements in recent years, it’s still not reliable enough, in large part because no one is actually managing it end-to-end. All it takes is one failure somewhere along a very long chain to bring your business to a crashing halt.     

A fully managed, multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) network provides an alternative for both reliability and network performance. When configured correctly, an MPLS network will have multiple connections and redundancies built in; if the primary carrier’s network goes down for any reason, it will automatically switch over to another that is still operating, providing business continuity and disaster recovery that many manufacturers lack today.

Moving to an MPLS doesn’t necessarily mean replacing all of your old carriers right away. But it does mean layering in tools to help you manage them more efficiently.

4. Prioritize network traffic
With the Internet, all traffic looks the same, which means that if data for the monthly report arrives at the same time as last night’s highlights from ESPN, the latter may win out.

A fully managed MPLS network provides one quality of service (QOS) and routing capability over the entire network. It allows you to prioritize traffic by business case rather than simply on the type of traffic (video, voice, data, etc.) to ensure that business-related data always goes ahead of non-business data. It also provides the ability to accommodate changes in enterprise usage, expanding at peak times and contracting at lower times, so that you’re paying for what you actually use rather than having to over-provision to handle the highest volume.

5. Controlled migration or rip-and-replace?
Once the infrastructure is in place, it’s time to start moving applications to the cloud. One of the prevailing myths is that this is an all-or-nothing proposition. In reality, migration to the cloud is a complex proposition, so performing a complete rip-and-replace is a bad business decision fraught with risk.

A better approach is to start with smaller, lower-risk environments, such as a remote manufacturing plant or distribution, and implement less complex applications, such as a cloud-based communications platform. Typically you won’t be housing the software at the remote location, so it provides an ideal “lab” with which to work. You can work slowly, test the procedures, refine them and ensure that they are fully integrated into your business processes. From there, you can migrate as business needs dictate.

Ready or not, the future is coming
Manufacturing is highly competitive, so you can be sure that if you’re not looking at cloud solutions and how to speed adoption of the latest technologies, your competitors are. But there’s no need to go it alone. The right partner can help you migrate to the cloud intelligently and successfully, allowing you to achieve the operational excellence you demand.

James Whitemore is executive vice-president of Smoothstone IP Communications, a provider of cloud-based communications for enterprise-level companies (www.smoothstone.com). He can be reached at jwhitemore@smoothstone.com.