Cloud computing is one of those slightly odd technical terms that appears once in a while. But what does it really mean and what, if any, relevance does it have to practical farming? This article aims to explain.
A little bit of history…
In the 1970s, computer users would work at a “dumb” computer terminal to access data stored on a powerful central computer called a mainframe. In the 1980s, thanks mainly to companies like Microsoft and Apple, computing moved away from the mainframe and onto the user’s desktop – the Personal Computer (PC) was born.
In the 1990s following the launch of Microsoft’s Windows Operating System for the PC, there was a rapid increase in the number of farm software programs covering livestock and crop recording through to office packages for word processing, spreadsheets and accounts.
This Microsoft Windows revolution opened up the benefits of computerised record-keeping to farm businesses of all sizes. Computers became more affordable and relatively easy to use. Most farm software needs to be installed and maintained on a per computer basis, and the farm data is almost always stored on the computer’s hard disk.
The limitations of desktop software for farming
Traditional farm software for Windows has a few drawbacks, which are becoming more and more noticeable now we are into the second decade of the 21st century. The main drawbacks include:
- you don’t have mobility with your data – you need to return to the same PC or else pay for further licences to install on additional PCs
- several users can’t access enter new data at the same time
- you need to have a regular data backup routine or else risk losing everything
- you have the hassle of maintaining the software on each computer – configuration and installing upgrades
- you are limited to using a Microsoft Windows PC, and some older farm software won’t even run on Windows 7 or the latest Windows 8
- you can’t work with your data on a modern Smartphone or Tablet (Android, iPhone, Blackberry, etc)
To be fair, there are a few Windows programs for farming that enable several users access data at the same time, but these tend to be few in number and users almost always need to be working on the same local network in the farm office.
The new era of the Cloud and mobile computing
Cloud computing is not really doing anything radically new. It’s really about letting a central computer do all the “heavy lifting” of processing and storing data. The user simply logs in to access and enter farm data using any type of device – it’s Information Technology (IT) that “just works”.
Voting in the Farmers Weekly Greatest Farming Innovations poll put the mobile phone and the Internet second and third respectively (just behind Harry Ferguson’s three-point linkage). It’s fair to say then, that the farming industry is no different to the rest of the commercial world in seeing IT as essential for modern business.
Put the mobile phone and the Internet together and you have the Smartphone, a device that provides access information from almost any location on the planet. The new era of mobile computing is already here. Stating the obvious, the real business of farming takes place outside the office, so the idea of accessing and recording information on the move is surely an attractive one. And now the technologies required to make this happen are firmly established.
In essence, cloud computing puts all the software functions and the farm data on a central server computer which is owned and maintained by the vendor. With cloud computing for farming, there’s no notion of software ownership and is generally known as “Software As A Service” (SaaS). The charges for the farm cloud services are usually based on the number of users or the size of the enterprise i.e. how much data processing and storage is consumed.
How do Users access cloud services?
Farm data and all the screens for data entry, reporting and analysis are accessed through a secure password-protected account. Users can login to their account through a standard Web browsing program on pretty much any type of hardware that’s connected to the Internet – PC, Mac, iPad, Android, Blackberry – all these devices will have a Web browser installed by default. Examples of Web browsers include Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox or Safari. It doesn’t matter what combination of hardware and Web browser is used.
So even though the name might imply it, the term “cloud computing” doesn’t mean your farm data is floating around in cyberspace accessible by anyone, it simply means you are outsourcing the computing functions and data storage to a specialist service provider.
This enables farms to save time and money through being able to access and enter data from any location using any type of computer or mobile device. Further cost savings come from a reduction in the maintenance costs associated with traditional desktop software.
In the second part of this series on cloud computing for agriculture, we’ll discuss what to look for in a “access anywhere” farm software solution.