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In the ‘Cloud’ yet? You need to be!

Monday, August 1, 2011

The word ‘cloud’ is becoming more and more prevalent in many of our daily vocabularies. And not in its original context, as it means more than the white, fluffy objects floating in the sky over our heads.

These days, the term is used to describe the online environment where cutting-edge technologies and software applications beneficial to the material handling industry are securely housed and easily accessible for facilities looking to improve their operations. The use of the cloud is becoming commonplace at a growing number of sites nationwide and throughout the globe. The reason is simple: It gives operators access to cutting-edge and reliable programs that typically are not available in more traditional forms, such as “boxed” software packages bought at electronics stores and retail outlets.

The widespread use of the Internet makes cloud-based applications the perfect fit for most operations. Whether it’s through a laptop, iPad, SmartPhone or just a standard desktop computer, all that’s generally required to tap into these software programs is an Internet connection. This flexibility allows site operators and staff to conduct business from off-site and locales away from their main computer or network, which historically housed the software applications necessary to conduct certain business tasks.

The framework behind cloud applications allows service providers to offer their software in a different way: hosted online on secure servers and accessed via a digital network. Unlike software that must be downloaded and then installed on an individual terminal, cloud-based services are utilized in the same manner as one would navigate any Web site or page. Think of online banking, e-mail or social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. It’s the same concept. The user simply accesses a Web page or online portal, log into his or her account, and begins using the software.

With today’s increasingly Web-oriented society, it’s no surprise that the variety of cloud-based software applications of interest to the material-handling industries continues to grow at break-neck speed. Whether it’s an application for internal processes only or one that offers customer or client interaction on the front-end, chances are there’s a proven system available in a cloud-based format that’s similar or identical to familiar software you already use. Facility operators rely on the technology for a wide variety of tasks, such as accounting, human resources, dock-scheduling, invoicing, inventory management, staff-scheduling and document upload and management.

Now that you have a sense of how cloud technology, you may be wondering why your operations would choose it over the more traditional software you’re used. After all, it’s pretty much the same software, right? Many individuals who’ve used cloud-based products would beg to differ and cite such benefits as:

  • Accessibility. Perhaps the most distinguishing feature, a cloud application allows its users to access it from any Intent connection, not just from one computer or network. Mobility is key in today’s business world, and not having access to important data and files when you need them can have a negative effect on overall operations. It’s not always convenient or even possible to run back to you desktop computer to access information; it certainly is when it’s accessible through your SmartPhone or iPad.
  • Monetary investment. Computer software has long been a significant expense for material-handling operations. Factor together consultation costs, installation times, training, maintenance and contracted support—as well as the software itself—and this necessary component of operations soon rears its ugly head in the expense account. And once established, it can be difficult to remove from the operations process. In comparison, many cloud-based providers offer their product for a fraction of the cost, many times in the form of a “pay-as-you-go” monthly payment option with no long-term contracts.
  • Support included. A given with most on-site systems is the need for either internal IT technicians or contracted support to maintain the software, conduct regular updates and upgrades, and address any issues as they arise. They may also serve as instructors for educating staff members on how to use the software. Without them, a company could be left in the dark after purchasing and installing “boxed” software. However, it does come with a price tag. Many cloud software services come standard with technical support, which oversees all maintenance to the system, including upgrades, updates and daily monitoring. In regards to updates or upgrades, these reach system users instantly, without any action on their part. It’s one less thing a material handling operation has to worry about.
  • Web-based features. Another advantage cloud systems have over their traditional counterparts is Web-based functionality. Uncommon in many “boxed” applications, these tools can give material handlers the ability to conduct such tasks as accepting online payment, allowing inbound carriers and drivers to schedule their delivery days and times, and send out automated e-mail and text message reminders. The framework behind cloud-based technology allows for this, as opposed to custom programming that may be necessary to add these features in a more traditional model.

The next time you hear the word “cloud,” don’t just think of the white, puffy shapes floating above you. Think of the beneficial technology available to you and your operations that’s easily and securely accessible right from your Internet connection.

About the Author: Eric Richard is the senior technology writer at Appointment-Plus (, an industry-leading online scheduling software application used by distributors, warehouses, manufacturers and other inbound material-handling facilities to manage their deliveries. The online scheduler calendar has booked over 70 million appointments and reservations since 2001.