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Cloud computing in bulk shipping

An introductory guide series for cloud computing in the bulk shipping industry

Chapter 1: What is the Cloud?

The adoption of cloud computing in the bulk shipping industry among operators, charterers and brokers has been slow compared to other industries with sensitive data.

This is understandable - bulk shipping is complex, with fast information flow and experts required almost every direction we turn - from the logistical complexities of dangerous routes to managing commercial risk which fluctuates daily. No one can afford to run the risk of a system collapse, and so it makes sense to turn to the system we know and trust - ourselves and the people we can count on.

It’s easy to dismiss bulk shipping as a traditional industry, but this is because traditional has been proven to work. Yet, in the same fashion pen & paper was swapped out for excel sheets, to improve our efficiency in collating and sharing data, it’s now time for excel to take a bow and allow new systems to have their time to shine. Cloud is no longer the new kid on the block, but a tried and tested method of progressing this efficiency even further. Still, today, the Cloud remains shrouded in mystery and myth. In this first post we’ll provide an overview of what cloud technology is, and, in our wider cloud series attempt to dispel some of the myths.

Behind the buzzword is actually a relatively simple idea; renting somebody else’s IT infrastructure, platforms or software. Why rent rather than develop your own expertise? Generally speaking, it’s better for organisations to focus on their core strength - i.e. when sending a single parcel no one hires, on-boards and deploys a fleet of postmen with state of the art delivery vans (unless you are a delivery company). The development of the Cloud has enabled companies to ‘rent’ IT from specialists, sharing the cost of external expertise and enabling them to focus on their area of specialism.

Types of cloud services

‘The Cloud’ can refer to the ‘renting’ of different kinds of services - there are three main types:

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS): renting physical infrastructure - i.e. hardware such as servers and storage or even buildings such as a data centre. When storing old fixtures, ship particulars and email data, rather than buying your own servers, storage space and buildings, IaaS allows you to have virtually limitless storage and computing power available without having any physical hardware on site. You don’t own the underlying infrastructure, so maintenance is taken care of for you - but own all of the data. Leading examples of IaaS are Amazon AWS and Microsoft Azure.

Platform as a Service (PaaS): renting operating systems or development tools (“platforms”) that enable users to build on top of these platforms rather than having to build up the starting blocks themselves. Similar to a computer’s operating system, PaaS is an operating system for developers to build web-based software. One example of this is Facebook - Facebook allows developers to build applications on top of a platform that already exists. One example of a platform you may see used in shipping software is Google Maps - technology companies build upon Google’s mapping platforms to provide additional intelligence and provide this as a service.

Software as a Service (SaaS): This is the most common cloud technology used in shipping today. SaaS enables software to be delivered over the internet, examples of this are Gmail, Dropbox, Marine Traffic and Shipamax. This means users can access the programs and data wherever they have an electronic device - no installation is required.

How does the Cloud work?

The lines have become somewhat blurred over what the Cloud is and what it is not, and that’s partly because there are so many overlaps. In some cases, technology companies claim to offer cloud technology that is not cloud based at all. As an example, imagine buying an LP of Bruce Springsteen’s’ greatest hits vs listening to the same songs on Spotify. In the former scenario you physically have hold of that LP, in the latter you are just listening to somebody else’s physical version played across a medium. The question to ask is whether the data/software is stored locally on your desktop computer, or is accessible from any machine with a web browser.

Blurred lines: Movie downloading vs streaming (cloud)

Downloading (iTunes): When downloading a movie, you host the movie data on your own machine.

Streaming (Netflix): files are released over the internet little by little, a constant process of downloading and forgetting, whereby the files never change hands to our machine as a whole. Streaming is a mechanism of the cloud – our computers essentially have access to limitless storage.

Blurred lines: e-mail

The lines are even more blurred when it comes to e-mail in which many of us use both non-cloud and cloud solutions.

If you have downloaded an e-mail client on your computer, for example Outlook, e-mails are sent to us as data. We retain a copy of the file, most likely saved in our C: Drive.

Nowadays there are a variety of cloud based e-mail clients, like Outlook Live, Gmail or shipping- focused SEDNA. In these systems the e-mails that are sent to us are first sent to the owners of the servers. E-mails are stored on these servers for on-demand access from any device through the internet. When checking e-mails on our friends phone or a public computer for example, we essentially stream the e-mails as opposed to downloading our entire inbox.

Cloud-based Shipping Technology

To round up with a couple of examples of cloud-based technologies used in shipping - think of MarineTraffic and SEDNA - you can access the software and data on the go from a web-based platform. Shipamax, is also a cloud-based SaaS technology - a data-driven communication platform for operators and brokers. More established desktop based technology examples include Veson IMOS and Netpas distance calculator - these are physically installed on your desktop.

Cloud-based technology is one of the biggest advancements to the internet, enabling shipping companies greater computing power, storage and accessibility to their data. In the following articles, we’ll delve into the benefits and disadvantages of procuring and using cloud technology in ship-owning, operating, broking and chartering companies.

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