What is cloud computing? According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), cloud computing is defined as “a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.”

That’s a mouthful, so, to put it simply, cloud computing involves being able to access services and store data over the Internet rather than relying on a local computing device (e.g., laptop, desktop, tablet) to run the software or store the data. Indeed, many software providers now run their applications over the Internet (in the cloud), which allows end users to access the application from just about any device and/or location.

Getting SaaS-y

Applications housed in the cloud are often known as cloudware, or Software as a Service (SaaS), but users should be cautious when providers say their applications are cloud-based. “Some software, anxious to lay claim to being in the cloud, is really just traditional Windows-based software placed in a hosted environment,” said Wayne Newitts, marketing director, Dexter + Chaney Inc. “It may be possible to access this software remotely, but in addition to the likely requirement of having special software loaded on the access device, users are not working with applications built to take advantage of new, smaller, more mobile computing devices.”

In short, software housed in the cloud should be designed for the cloud, said Newitts, otherwise it can be frustrating, if not impossible for users to work with complex screens and menus using a tablet or smartphone. “The program should be designed so that it doesn’t matter which device is being used to access the cloudware — basically a new level of thought and care must go into the way data is entered and information presented. True cloud-based software has ease of use built in not as a benefit, but as a necessity.”

One of the main benefits of using cloud-based applications is that they can be accessed just about anywhere. “Data is accessible from any computer browser or smart device, and in the event that a mobile device is lost or replaced, there’s no risk that the data is destroyed or compromised,” said Christopher Rywelski, chief technology officer (CTO), RazorSync LLC. “Our cloudware is as secure as an online banking application, so the business owner is in complete control of who has access to the company records through password-protected accounts.”

Accessing cloudware from anywhere also means there’s never a need to invest in hardware locally or install software on-premises, said Rywelski. “We completely manage the solution, ensuring that it is kept up-to-date and running optimally. And RazorSync is a native (binary) app, which means the program can be used when there isn’t a wireless (mobile or Wi-Fi) signal available. HVAC contractors often find themselves in locations where a signal cannot be had, but our cloudware works offline, automatically synchronizing when a signal is available.”

Not having to support locally installed and managed solutions is why HVAC contractors are becoming more interested in cloud-based solutions, said Todd Ewing, director of product marketing, Fleetmatics Group. “They like that they just need a Web browser and a username/password combination to access critical information. They also like that we can provide frequent updates to the system automatically, without any installation needed or additional cost. They just subscribe to the service and enjoy the benefits without the overhead.”

Less overhead can be achieved using cloudware because the burden of maintaining up-to-date hardware, operating systems, database software, etc., is transferred from the contracting firm to the data centers that provide hosting, said Newitts. “But the real savings comes from the freedom contractors have to use less powerful, therefore less expensive, devices to access and run cloud-based software. With no software to load and maintain on users’ devices, and with dramatically reduced requirements for processing power and memory, companies can realize significant savings.”

Cloud Solutions

There is no shortage of cloudware designed to make HVAC contractors’ lives easier. Dexter + Chaney, for example, offers the cloud-based solution, Spectrum® Construction Software, version 14, which provides contractors with business and operations management software in one package. This allows contractors to manage accounting, payroll, inventory, purchasing, human resources, construction projects, service dispatch, work orders, electronic documents, invoices, and just about any other business function.

“Spectrum provides contractors with the information needed to make smart financial and operational decisions about the work they do,” said Newitts. “The improved accessibility of our cloudware is driving more use of it by folks in the field and on job sites. Information they need is at their fingertips, and they can get more done while on the run or at remote locations — things like updating daily logs, checking technician dispatch status, managing fleets and inventories, approving invoices, etc.”

Contractors looking for a fleet management solution may consider Fleetmatics, a fleet management software and mobile app that tracks the real-time location of their mobile workforce and provides valuable business intelligence. “HVAC contractors can use our solution to understand how they can improve productivity and reduce cost via reporting, dashboards, and real-time alerts sent to managers to enforce company policy,” said Ewing.

The small black box that Fleetmatics installs inside contractors’ vehicles (usually inside and underneath the dashboard) measures ignition status, vehicle state and location, and reports that information to the company’s network operations centers every 90 seconds the vehicle is in motion. “Contractors use that information to find reductions in hard costs like engine idling and fuel costs; promote safer, more efficient driving behavior on the road; and improve customer service,” noted Ewing. “With this objective information, they can manage all elements of their mobile workforce with full confidence and less cost.”

RazorSync’s cloudware and mobile app streamline the business operations of a field service business, allowing contractors to manage customers, schedule and dispatch workers, invoice, etc., from any mobile device or desktop. “RazorSync connects office and field workers, giving contractors tighter control over customer management, cash flow, and employees in the field. All data is stored in the cloud, so it’s always available from wherever the contractor may be working,” said Rywelski.

RazorSync costs $19.95 per user per month and does not require a contract. “We don’t require a contract, because we firmly believe that if RazorSync isn’t providing value, then customers should be able to freely use any other solution without penalty,” said Rywelski. “But for less than 67 cents per user per day, it is possible to increase efficiencies, as well as increase customer service.”

As cloudware becomes more commonplace, contractors may want to take some time to consider utilizing one of the many solutions residing in the cloud. Cloudware can minimize the need for expensive hardware, while maximizing the ability to manage technicians and/or customers from just about anywhere in the world — ultimately improving a company’s bottom line.

Publication date: 2/3/2014

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