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How can you bring data and processes from multiple machines, departments and diverse locations together onto one platform with secure access? Andrew Pickering discovers whether cloud services provide the answer
Cloud computing is a general term for technology that uses a combination of the internet and remote servers to deliver hosted services rather than products. The name cloud computing was derived from the simplified cloud drawing that is often used to represent the internet in flow charts and diagrams.
These services are broadly divided into three categories: Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), in which the cloud provider offers computers – as physical or more often as virtual machines – for processing, storage, networks and other fundamental computing resources; Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), in which the cloud provider delivers to the consumer the capability to deploy onto the cloud infrastructure the consumer’s or acquired applications created using programming languages and tools supported by the provider; and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), in which the cloud provider delivers its applications running on a cloud infrastructure. The user accesses the applications through a thin-client interface such as a web browser, but does not manage or control the underlying cloud infrastructure or applications, with the exception of provider-defined user-specific application configuration settings. The most common example of SaaS, which everyone will be familiar with, is web-based email, such as Gmail and Hotmail.
For most corporate end-users, cloud technology delivers the opportunity to drive flexibility while reducing costs. Cliff Evans, vice president at Capgemini, explains: “Cloud needs to be used in the most appropriate way for the right application in the organisation, and there are two basic areas in which you can
use it. From our point of view, there is what one might call the outside-in, customer-centric view of the world, where the focus is on flexibility, connectivity to customers and users, very fast response and really getting the benefits of the whole internet world. Then there is what we call the inside-out approach, which is concerned with driving down costs of back-end systems and streamlining operations. Here the focus is on standardisation and reduced costs in terms of the way you operate.
“There are opportunities in both those spaces for postal operators. They generally have large back-end systems that in many cases need to be
streamlined and here we are seeing the emergence of services that are cloud based or pay-as-you-go based. Then with customer services at the front end of the organisation you have multichannel marketing, call centres, online services, mobile communications and, in many cases, retail in the form of counter services. So the opportunity for a postal operator is to promote an integrated customer experience to sell new services while driving down the cost of providing those services and running the organisation.”
When Capgemini looked at both those areas, it identified a need to provide a mechanism for integration so that customers could choose the right services for each area and connect them to deliver the greatest benefit.
Evans explains his approach: “Historically the way a lot of the cloud service and SaaS providers approached problems within these organisations has been to sell at a departmental or local level. The users then bypass the IT department and the business ends up with a proliferation of small SaaS solutions at the departmental level and loses the opportunity to integrate those services with each other and with back-end systems or other systems the organisation operates. We saw the opportunity to integrate and bring together services where users are able to choose different options for different circumstances.
“The immediate framework has three components. It has the technology or services framework to connect the things together; it has the operating model that enables you to manage a multiplicity of partners and providers; and it has the commercial framework that enables us to take the risk on behalf of the customer of managing those suppliers and ecosystem on their behalf.”
Cloud services provide opportunities for post depending on where you are in the industry, because postal is true multichannel at the front end, with retail outlets, web interfaces and call centres. So there is a huge opportunity in the multichannel area.
According to Evans, there are clear indications that using cloud services integrated with online services provides a tremendous opportunity in that space: “Increasingly we see organisations wanting to access social networking information to get customer feedback, but how do you integrate social networking with call centres, and a call centre to an online response? We now have the ability to integrate all that channel information and respond effectively, which is something that any organisation with a heavy multichannel presence would want to be able to do.”
One company that has certainly employed the advantage of cloud to the benefit of its customers is Prime Vision, whose initial solution in this area – WebCoding – was developed with PostNL for TNT Post in the UK and the whole of the Netherlands’ mail sorting. It enables posts to conduct video coding offshore, helping to increase quality and flexibility, and decrease costs in sorting processes.
“Most people think of the cloud simply as a solution for email or document management and that sort of generic business process, where everybody can communicate on the same platform with good security and access control,” says Richard Hagen, Prime Vision’s director of sales. “It’s popular because it’s easy to deploy and use rather than having fixed infrastructure in physical locations.
“It’s a repository of information. It’s where some processes can happen and systems can be updated, and in the postal world the first applications we came across were in the areas of document management and image handling. So the PostNL system is a perfect example of a person running a process on an image and returning the resulting data to the source. The cloud was the medium in which that was communicated. That’s in line with a lot of the processes that are in the cloud already, which are document or image based. Somebody looks at an image, adds some intelligence, makes a decision and sends the data somewhere.”
Things have moved on and users and providers are becoming more specific about what cloud is, as Hagen confirms. “The internet has really developed in terms of connection speeds and reliability, so we’re already linking sorting centres and machines all over the world. These are high-availability, redundant connections, which means you can also deploy systems in the cloud to do automated processing that was previously only done at the sorting machine because of time limitations.
“This is most useful in deploying solutions that don’t have any human input at all – in addition to those that do – and you still have all the benefits of scalability and ease of maintenance because you’re not deploying technology to the four corners of the earth. The hardware is held and maintained at a central location, which also opens up the commercial possibility of charging per piece processed, instead of developing specific solutions for customers that are deployed at their sorting machines.
“A lot of customers may want to upgrade their equipment and technology but don’t – especially in today’s market – have a huge investment budget available to buy an individually tailored solution. They need to get onto a shared platform where costs can be split among many users, with them all getting the benefits of that platform and the performance enhancements. We’re on the verge of that now in terms of what we’re developing.”
Another area of interest to every business nowadays is revenue recovery and protection. For posts this might involve the analysis of source material, such as images, or it might be in the deployment of a system by which customers are automatically challenged on the charging rate or the price paid.
A particularly relevant revenue recovery application is in the field of indicia recognition, says Hagen: “With cloud we are able to develop more or less standard solutions for the bulk of our customers. There are about 10 postal organisations active in the UK, for instance, so if we developed some kind of indicia and stamp recognition technology, we could approach all those potential customers. They all have the same need – to detect and read the stamps automatically, of which there are probably 300 to 400 stamps in circulation and 20 or 40 meter marks. All the users could be connected to a cloud solution, independent of each other, but with the benefit of shared initial development costs, and they would be charged according to use.”
The final word goes to Capgemini’s Evans: “A lot of people think of cloud as all about the technology, but the message we’re trying to put across is that from an immediate point of view you have to think about the technology and the services choices you’re making in combination with the commercial and operating models, because in a lot of cases cloud is as much about the latter as it is about the new technologies and services.”
Case study: RPost Cloud
The RPost Cloud platform was established in 2011 and is built on RPost’s Registered Email technology standard for processing high-value email messages with added characteristics that deliver a specialised message product to the recipient and return analytics, reports and evidence records to the sender.
RPost Cloud acts as an infrastructure extension to developers’ own software platforms to add legally valid proof and non-repudiation, security and compliance, electronic signature and authentication, and collaboration and deliverability services.
“It stores no information, and processes transactions in a specialised way,” explains RPost’s founder and CEO, Zafar Khan. “We can provide the sender with proof of who knew what and when, or who said what and when via email. Other elements that might be important to a particular piece of correspondence, such as extra encryption for privacy, and the ability to electronically sign or receive the recipient’s indication of acceptance, are proving useful in the business world.”
As an example, standard email routed through the RPost Cloud platform for specialised processing can be transformed into a number of products such as certified email with sender authentication, secure large file transfer, registered email with proof of delivery, digital time-stamping, secure electronic signature and electronic contract signing services, and PDF fill-in form electronic signing.
The RPost Cloud creates an opportunity for developers and service providers – including postal services – to generate new recurring transactional or per-user revenue based on the amount of data they route for processing by the RPost Cloud.
“We offer postal services the opportunity to launch a whole platform of high-value outbound electronic messaging services,” says Khan. “These services will map to the already existing transaction laws the operator’s country, and the post can be in business making money and in a strong position to win a large part of the messaging market.”
Unsurprisingly, Khan doesn’t recommend that posts embark on such a project by themselves. “Building it themselves would cost more money, take longer and most likely miss the market,” he says.