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Cloud from the ground up

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By: Jacob Stoller
2012-12-01

As the phrase “moving to the cloud” suggests, cloud computing usually involves a migration of sorts where organizations incrementally shed elements of their IT infrastructure in favour of offerings from online providers. However, when Dennis Donovan and Steve Moore started Vancouver-based Tercera Construction in 2010, they decided to build their IT environment entirely in the cloud.

Donovan was all too familiar with the headaches of in-house IT. “I came from a company where they had two IT guys and all this hardware, and nothing seemed to work,” says Donovan.

He saw the cloud as an opportunity to avoid similar headaches and avoid tying up money in areas other than his core business. “I didn’t want to be in the hardware business,” says Donovan. “With IT, there’s ‘I need to invest in this’ and ‘I need to invest in that’. What I wanted to invest in was people, because we’re a people business.”

Commercial general contractors, such as Tercera, deal with a relatively diverse mix of transactions, and the opportunities for error are numerous. This means, in order to stay afloat, construction firms need to have robust systems in place. “We wanted to make sure when we started our own business that we kept track of money, because if we didn’t, we’d end up like all those businesses that owe CRA tens of thousands of dollars because they can’t pay their HST,” says Donovan.

The cloud allowed Donovan to start their business on a full-featured business software suite. With an up-front investment of about $20,000 and an annual license and support fee of $2,500, Tercera implemented Sage 300 for Construction and Real Estate. The program runs almost all aspects of the business, including estimating, project management, change orders, procurement and receivables.

“The system protects us from ourselves,” explains Donovan. “If something doesn’t work within a certain variance, the screen will freeze and you need someone else to come in and take a look at it; and you’re able to either bypass it or fix the issue at the time. So it stops you from making the same mistake over and over and over again. It also allows us to catch mistakes early.”

Donovan feels the time it took to learn the new system was well invested. “It hasn’t been an easy process,” he says. “It isn’t something you can just take up in a day. But what the reward has been is that I am able to pay my taxes and sleep at night, because I know what is due, what is payable and when it’s payable. That type of stuff.”

Tercera operates all of its applications, including the Sage system and Microsoft Office, in the cloud through Vancouver-based Imogo Mobile Technologies Corp. Imogo stores all of Tercera’s data on a dedicated server—a measure that Donovan feels offers an extra margin of protection against data loss.

The overall solution isn’t perfect. In order to make documents accessible to their Apple devices, the company uses a workaround of sorts though an inexpensive cloud service called Evernote. This allows the storage and categorization of various documents on the cloud, making them accessible to a variety of devices. Tercera also makes wide use of pdf format for secure documents that are not normally edited, such as quotes, estimates and contracts.

Words of caution
While the cloud scenario is working well for Tercera, contractors should consider the following precautions:

When an organization is 100-per-cent cloud-dependent, an internet outage could cause employees to be stranded without access to their applications and files; and a slow connection causes online applications to perform poorly. This could be a concern in remote regions of Canada.

Some organizations are concerned about cloud hosts that store their data in foreign countries, and some legal experts believe this could create liabilities under privacy legislation. Tercera’s data is stored on Canadian soil.

There are still many applications that are not yet available in the cloud. For example, many specialty applications operate only on desktop machines.

It’s still early days for the cloud, and 100-per-cent adoption has to be planned carefully in order to ensure all requirements are adequately supported. While taking the leap isn’t for everyone, it’s almost certain that more companies will use the cloud to focus less on IT and more on construction
in the years to come. 

Jacob Stoller is principal of Toronto-based consultancy Stoller Strategies.

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