Cloud Rolls in, Apps Rolls out

Feature Story

Cloud Rolls in, Apps Rolls out

By TMCnet Special Guest
Selwyn Rabins, Co-founder, Alpha Software
  |  December 09, 2014

Organizations moving to the cloud spend most of their time considering the type of cloud they need, which cloud services providers to choose, what SaaS (News - Alert) applications will fit the bill, and so on. But there's one thing most organizations, especially smaller ones, overlook: What happens when they need a custom application? Their old application development skills and tools won't work in the cloud. And when you build apps for the cloud, you have to build one for every potential device that will connect to your business. That means hiring consultants or lots of developers.

Today, an alternative has emerged, which is to use one of the new generation of development tools specifically designed for deploying to multiple mobile devices and the cloud. These tools allow companies to rapidly create business apps for any mobile device and for desktops, laptops, and the Web. The following is a look at how three small to mid-sized companies rebooted their businesses using such a tool, capitalized on cloud computing, and ended up with entirely new revenue streams, more effective business processes and reduced costs, thanks to their ability to quickly build responsive applications.

OERCA: From the Ocean to the Cloud

When you’re chest-deep in the ocean, gathering data about large marine mammals, pencil and paper is not your friend. But, that’s the way researchers recorded information, such as the physical state of animals, water temperature and quality, and more, not long ago. Researchers would jot down the information while in the field, then later input what they gathered into Excel spreadsheets, using Excel’s rudimentary analytical tools to glean what insights they could.

That was just the start of the problems with the old way of doing things, remembers Mark Simmons, Managing Partner of OERCA, which sells management application software and services for zoological institutions, rescue centers and field operations.

“Whether trainers and researchers were in a water park, rehabbing a sick animal, or out in the field, they couldn’t get the information they needed, because it simply wasn’t available remotely. They never had the data they needed at their fingertips,” he says.

Simmons knew the problem close-up, because during his time as a marine mammal researcher and consultant to parks like Sea World, that’s how he had done things. Eventually, he and others at OERCA graduated from Excel spreadsheets to a Microsoft (News - Alert) Access database – but that still didn’t solve the problem of remote data access. The cloud, they knew, was the way to go, and they eventually ended up with two dedicated servers in a data center running Microsoft SQL server software.

But, storing data in the cloud is one thing, and accessing it from the Web and from mobile devices is something else entirely. OERCA is a small company, without the internal resources to create Web-based and mobile apps. So, OERCA hired a consultant for coding work, and worked closely with him, sending mockup designs in Photoshop, and quickly getting back completed code. The results were cloud-based Web access and an app that runs on waterproof iPads so researchers and trainers can input and access data from wherever they are, be it chest deep in the waves, or seated comfortably in an office behind a PC.

“Our business would not exist if we hadn’t gone this way,” Simmons says. “Our main competitor invested more than $40 million in its system and went the traditional route of having programmers write custom code. We would never have been able to put that kind of capital and time into development.”

MySchoolAnywhere: Bringing School Directories into the 21st Century

If ever something cried out for use of the cloud, it would be school directories… those printed booklets with contact information for students and their parents put together at the beginning of each school year, which are subsequently marked up, scratched out and mishandled as parents and children move in and out of the school and change residences, phone numbers, and email addresses.

Jay and Tracie Oken, co-owners of MySchoolAnywhere, know that well, having suffered through that very scenario, like other parents with printed directories. So, they launched a business selling a computer-based solution to the problem after their six-year-old twin boys entered the first grade in Los Angeles in 2006. Originally, they sold a desktop application, MySchool, that allowed Parent Teacher Organizations to build and print the directories. But, by 2012, all that changed.

“By then, everyone had smart phones and tablets, and many people wanted to get rid of paper. It was time to move to a cloud-based and mobile platform,” Tracie Oken remembers. Because it would be available via the cloud wherever parents were, they called it MySchoolAnywhere.

Building apps for the dizzying array of mobile devices that parents have was far beyond the Okens’ technical capabilities. They also didn’t have the budget to hire enough programming talent to build different custom apps for different devices. And the kicker: They had only six months to get the work done so that they could meet their next year’s sales cycle.

To meet those goals, they hired a developer to build an app that could be quickly deployed to multiple devices. They worked closely with him, with Tracie doing the HTML, Jay working on the reporting, and the developer building the components. They succeeded in finishing the portal and mobile apps in six months.

The results have been spectacular. In less than the first year after deployment, MySchoolAnywhere reaped a 60 percent revenue increase and, while increasing sales, reduced support time, which the Okens provide themselves.

“The costs of supporting the desktop version would have been unsustainable with the growth we’ve seen,” Tracie says. “With the Web and mobile versions, we can provide support remotely over the Web, significantly reducing support time.”

Jay Oken concludes: “It was either get off the desktop or get out of business. We succeeded by getting to mobile and the cloud.”

Newark Recycled Paperboard Solutions: Reuse, Recycle, Head to the Cloud

The cardboard recycling business may sound like a last-century, legacy industry, but that’s far from the truth. Just ask Tom Ritter, CIO of Newark Recycled Paperboard Solutions in Cranford, NJ, which collects used cardboard from large companies such as Wal-Mart, and from municipalities throughout the U.S., and recycles it into paperboard for products such as cereal boxes and book covers. Newark has 30 facilities throughout the country, including warehouses manufacturing centers, and to run it all, uses a central data center in New Jersey. The company uses an Oracle (News - Alert) database and does a fair amount of custom programming — Ritter estimates that 80% of the company’s development time is spent on custom programming. And that’s where Newark began to run into logjams.

“In early 2010, we had a big backlog because of how long the custom programming work took. So, I set a goal to cut our development time in half,” he says.

That wasn’t the only problem. The sales staff and others didn’t have mobile access to data. They had to call or email to ask to have reports run when they were on the road. Nor could they call up vital information when visiting clients, or input sales information at client sites.

To cut development time and build mobile apps, Ritter had his developers port browser-based apps to mobile devices. This helps him get the most out of his staff of six developers. He met his goal to cut development time and to quickly build mobile apps. Sales staff can get whatever information and reports they want on the road via iPads, and can finalize orders at customer sites. Mobile apps are being used in many other ways as well. They will be used in warehouses for tracking the moving inventory and shipping products, for example.

“That’s a massive productivity gain,” he says. “Being able to write apps like this is more than just about reduced costs or increased productivity. It’s also helping us transform the way we do business.”

The Future of Mobile Apps and the Cloud

These three companies are not unique. Having the agility to quickly write apps for multiple mobile form factors is the wave of the future for companies of all sizes.

“Being able to quickly write mobile apps that can access the cloud is a problem for companies of all sizes,” says Forrester (News - Alert) analyst Michael Facemire. “Time to market is a big issue. You can’t just throw people at the problem and expect to drive down development time — you don’t gain efficiencies by just adding people. You need a tool that can easily access many back ends and cloud services, and that can quickly write the front end for multiple types of mobile devices.”

Dan Bricklin, the creator of the electronic spreadsheet VisiCalc which helped launch the PC revolution, and more recently built a popular iPad app called Note Taker HD, agrees. “Companies can no longer standardize on single computing device for accessing information,” he says.

“A CEO might want to use a smartphone, a salesperson might want a tablet for taking orders, others may want to use a PC-based browser at home or in the office. But, it’s very difficult for companies to build applications for devices with many different screen sizes and Operating Systems. Corporations can’t afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and months of time getting the work done. With the new generation of development tools, you don’t need five developers and all that time — one person can do it all quickly and efficiently.” If you ask companies about these kinds of tools, they talk the language of business, not technology.

MySchoolAnywhere’s Jay Oken sums up the benefits best when he says, “Without a simple, quick, inexpensive way to develop our mobile app, we simply wouldn’t have been able to stay in business.”

About the Author: Selwyn Rabins co-founded Alpha Software and leads Alpha's design and engineering work. Rabins holds a master's degree in finance from the Sloan School at MIT (News - Alert) and a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Edited by Maurice Nagle
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