The cloud, the cloud, the cloud. It seems everyone wants us to work in the cloud. It has been about three years since I last wrote on this subject, so it’s time for some updates.
My use of the cloud has increased in the last three years. The first change was subscribing to Windows Office 365 for Business in 2015. I had held off switching to cloud-based productivity software due to fears of not being able to work if the internet were out in my office or not available while on the road. I changed my mind when I learned that, while the software is available in the cloud, it is also installed on your computers, tablets and phones. In addition, you can store your files in the cloud and on your hard drive. The software automatically syncs between both locations.
This revelation allayed most of my fears about using cloud-based software, though I was still concerned about the cost of storage. Microsoft had solved this problem by including a generous 1 terabyte of storage with my subscription; probably more storage than I will ever use in my company. Of course, if you need more, Microsoft will be happy to let you pay for it.
About a year ago, a good customer included me in his Dropbox subscription. If you are unfamiliar with this product, it is a file-hosting service. Like many such cloud storage companies, Dropbox gives you 5 gigabytes of storage for free. If you need more, they have a number of personal and business plans.
My customer has an unlimited storage plan that he uses for all office, estimating and project management files. He created a dedicated folder for my company, in which I set up a folder for each project I bid for him. When we win a project, the estimating files are copied to a project management folder, and we can both access them. An important feature in Dropbox is the creator of the folders and files has complete control over who can see and modify them.
So, what can the cloud do for electrical estimating? The most touted advantage is the ability to work from anywhere with an internet connection. Some systems allow multiple estimators to work on a project from separate locations.
Another convenience is reduced maintenance time for hardware and software. Since the vendor performs all maintenance and updates in the cloud, the customer never has to wait out another round of updates in their office. Larger contractors can realize significant savings on server hardware purchases and maintenance.
Backup is another valuable feature. The vendors I spoke to all had their customers’ data backed up in multiple locations, taking another task off their customers hands. Altogether, these advantages add up to simplification. All an EC needs to set up an estimating system is a reasonably powered computer and an internet connection.
The most obvious disadvantage is the requirement of an internet connection. This is not a huge problem these days unless you want to estimate from someplace like California’s Ansel Adams Wilderness—which I do on occasion.
A secondary problem can be the speed of your connection. Estimating requires the movement of large amounts of data, especially if you are downloading drawings and then uploading them to your cloud-based estimating system. Reliability is important. If your internet connection is down, you cannot work on your estimate.
Another issue for some estimators and companies is control and security of their data. While most of the cloud-based estimating vendors give you a lot of control over your database, they still have it in their possession. Some estimators I have talked with would never be comfortable with someone else having the ability to see their proprietary estimating information. In regard to security, inquire about security protocols with each software company you are considering.
Before jumping on the cloud-based estimating wagon, as with any estimating software purchase, ask questions. How many items are in the database? How many assemblies? Can I add or modify items and assemblies? How often are the prices updated? Can I import prices from my vendors? How many labor columns are included?
The cloud is no longer coming—it is here. In addition to the new cloud estimating software vendors, several established companies have added cloud-based systems or are working on them. Review potential purchases carefully, and take advantage of free trials if they are available.