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Working Smarter in The Cloud

Technology experts advise transportation departments to develop a plan for moving data and applications ‘off premise’

Antonio Civitella has a bone to pick with the so-called cloud. That is not to say the founder and CEO of Transfinder doesn’t champion the technology. It’s simply that he finds the word “cloud” to be inaccurate. “I’m a stickler on the words we use to describe things,” he said recently. “That’s the best English word to describe that?”

Civitella said the cloud is a marketing term that refers to a third-party software provider hosting client data off-premises, compared to the traditional and more costly way of an organization hosting that same information on its own servers. Gone are the days when most organizations need large, what he referred to as, “beefier” computers with a lot of memory and graphics cards. “And three years later, you have to replace that computer because we’re putting [in] more features and functionality,” he added.

It was not that long ago, Civitella reminded, that many organizations operated mainframe computers that were connected to “dumb terminals,” essentially a computer screen with a keyboard and sometimes a mouse to simply access and display the data. That trend is returning.“[By moving to the cloud], you don’t have to keep rein-vesting in latest and best CPU and memory because a lot of that stuff is happening off premises. You just want to see the results,” he explained.

“There have been some school districts out there that have invested heavily in state-of-the-art technology several years ago. Well now, it’s the end of life for that technology,” Civitella continued. “So, the IT department has to make a decision. Do I reinvest in beefing up my technology? Or do I slowly shed [it] away and give it to vendors?”He shared that 77 percent of Transfinder customers have moved their transportation data off premises, where the data is backed up and managed by a dedicated team of engineers. The data is also located on multiple servers in multiple cities to ensure it is always accessible. It’s also less costly than hosting on premises.

There are many “cloud” services to choose from. Transfinder happens to use Amazon Web Services with over 1,000 servers running at peak hours, Civitella added. “Generally speaking, regardless of what going to cloud means, whether using software-as-a-service in the cloud or your IT department is moving your applications to the cloud, it’s massively more advantageous to running physical hardware,” agreed Gordon Waddell, senior vice president of software for Zonar Systems, which began moving its products to Google Cloud six years ago.

He explained that whatever going to the cloud means—using a vendor software as a service that is running remotely or the IT department is moving in-house applications to off-premises hosting or vendors are giving access to what he called “do-it-yourself applications—it can result in greater efficiencies and cost savings.

“Running systems in the cloud [is] massively more advantageous to the old way of lots of different companies be it vendors, be it your own IT departments, be it the subcontractors that your IT teams use running physical hardware,” he said. “The cloud has a lot of advantages there.”

One advantage, he continued, is the cloud infrastructure, among them Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud and IBM. Those systems are running on hardware that are being closely supervised by “masses of professionals” who are dedicated to ensuring the systems work. The result, he added, is a much higher-quality level of support than has been possible in the past.

“That’s not to say you might not have a good IT team. But does that other application from that other vendor, who is running someplace else, who is subcontracting to someone else, do they have a really good team?” he observed. “As a user these days, you are dealing with an amalgamation of systems. If things are in the cloud, you know that backbone of system uptime and availability is much better.”

The cloud also allows software providers to offer more features and increased functionality to their customers as well as upgrades and other improvements available at near-instant speeds, Waddell said. He also noted flexible data plans, so customers only pay for what they use. The simple truth, however, is that not all data is available in the cloud because the school district has yet to make the transition. That was the case at Roosevelt Elementary School District #66 in Phoenix, Arizona, when Director of Transportation Kerry Duskin arrived there over five years ago.

Duskin is a proponent of the cloud and of technology in general, and he had previous experience using rout-ing software in Louisiana. He said he was taken aback at the lack of technology at Roosevelt Elementary.

Luckily for him, he recounted, he arrived when the previous superintendent championed making technological advances. Last year, Duskin oversaw the completion of a cloud transition. He and his staff now connect to off-premises data hosted by Transfinder for routing and Synovia for student ridership. “I can still work from home versus I’m [at the office] and our systems are down,” he said. In terms of efficiency of routing, he gave credit to the upgrade of Transfinder’s Routefinder PLUS that uses artificial intelligence optimization.

Next, Duskin said he hopes to move the district’s school bus video to the cloud. Currently, staff is still pulling video cartridges from DVRs and backing up to flash drives.

In Las Vegas, Nevada, Clark County School District is creating processes for how to access and use Safety Vision video in real time and with files residing in the cloud. “Our goal is to randomly monitor routes to see how things are going,” said Executive Director of Transportation Jennifer Vobis.

Administrators at the five transportation facilities will get real-time updates. “Before, because we are so spread out if there was an allegation of a fight, an incident, investigators would have to go physically to the bus to download the video,” said Vobis, the 2022 STN Transportation Director of the Year. “Now, we’ll be able to do it at our desks.”

Because of similar hybrid environments, where Civitella said some data is hosted off premises with the rest on internal servers, communication is key. Arizona’s Duskin noted that very challenge still exists at his district, especially when multiple vendors are involved.

Civitella added that he advises customers that are upgrading technology to ask their existing or potential vendors if they offer an off-premises solution. “You’ve got to be thinking about that because as soon as you have one product on the cloud or hosted… you want that to become your trend.” he said, advocating a road map that includes transportation in overall school district technology upgrades. “You have 10 different software products. Student transportation is one of those pieces. You should come up with a roadmap when you want to take on this challenge of slowly moving everything off-prem.”

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the March 2023 issue of School Transportation News.

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