A comprehensive IT upgrade can be a tough sell to management, but cloud services may offer a silver lining, says Monica Rathbun of Denny Cherry & Associates Consulting.
It’s no secret that the freight transportation industry lags behind other industries in terms of the digitization of data and processes.
According to a recent survey from multinational accounting and consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, only 28 percent of transportation companies say they’ve achieved an overall measure of success in digitization.
Fifty percent of respondents cited a lack of digital training and culture as the reason they hadn’t digitized, while 38 percent said concerns over the high cost of investment were a primary factor.
Having worked as a database professional at a major seaport for a dozen years, I am intimately familiar with the challenges facing the industry when it comes to digitization and have some suggestions on how today’s technology can help accelerate the process.
First, the challenge: The price of procuring new physical hardware and software can be prohibitively expensive, particularly when both architecture and infrastructure have aged outside their normal service life.
Navigating the budget process within a given organization — be it a port, cargo carrier or third-party logistics provider — can be difficult, time consuming and often unfruitful. Capital expenditures tend to be unpopular with management, and at the Port of Virginia, the budget was always state approved, which added yet another layer of complexity to the process.
For many transportation industry companies, the result of this sometimes frustrating process is piecemeal change, with either the hardware or software being replaced, while the other remains stuck in the status quo.
This partial solution, however, often fails to overcome the problems of excruciatingly slow computing and inadequate storage.
Cloudy With A Chance of Budget. One potential solution that companies may not be taking full advantage of is the cloud.
Cloud services from the so-called “Big Three” — Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google Cloud — can enable transportation firms to actually write a fiscally sound proposal that might just make it through a budget meeting.
Utilizing Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), for example, enables the elimination of pricey hardware purchases. With a click of a few buttons, you can create a fully functional, high-performance server with premium storage for all your data needs. You also can leverage high-availability and database services.
Equally, Software as a Service (SaaS) enables you to rent, rather than purchase, the latest in software at a much lower relative cost.
While we had an enterprise agreement at the port that allowed us to stay on the latest and greatest versions of SQL Server, most companies don’t have that luxury. And for those companies, getting licensing approved for upgrades, especially when the “current” versions still “work well enough,” often can be difficult.
Azure prevents that battle, as upgrades are baked into the initial cost discussion. Additionally, utilizing SaaS eliminates the pesky battle with patches — non-periodic changes designed to fix issues or improve performance — which in turn enhances security.
The beauty of an IaaS and SaaS solution is twofold. First, the budget is far more digestible as a monthly fee rather than a hefty capital expenditure. Second, your IT environment remains the latest and greatest long term because you no longer pay to upgrade aging hardware and software.
Assessing Your Needs. Which cloud is right for your company will always come down to specific needs. Azure tends to be the industry favorite in terms of compatible cloud technology, but generally speaking, any of the Big Three cloud service providers can manage the infrastructure, while you purchase, install, configure and manage your own software, including operating systems, middleware and end-user applications.
When it comes to assessing you company’s needs, review each cloud’s disaster recovery (DR) capabilities. If you do not currently have resources in the cloud and favor a graded approach, investing in DR services in the cloud is definitely a good place to start.
Physical location is also a key element in this decision-making process. Ports, for instance, are highly susceptible to natural disasters and weather-related disruptions because they are located along the coast.
At the Port of Virginia, our offsite DR solution was installed in a trailer located a mere five miles away, which left it susceptible to the elements. If a hurricane had hit our area, for example, the trailer likely would have been destroyed along with our main site, rendering it essentially useless in that situation. As such, Azure or one of the other major cloud providers would have been a great solution for protecting our data in the event of a major disruption to our on-site hardware.
Silver Linings. So while the industry may currently lag behind others in digitization, there’s nowhere to go but up. Up to the cloud, to be exact.
Had cloud technology been an option during the time I spent working at the Port of Virginia, I would have highly recommended this approach to data digitization.
The technology exists today to comprehensively upgrade transportation industry hardware and software without pricey capital expenditures, enabling IT professionals to focus their resources on innovation.
Monica Rathbun is a Microsoft MVP with Denny Cherry & Associates Consulting and a former database professional with the Port of Virginia. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.