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Construction Software’s Next Big Thing: The Platform

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Where We Are Today: Construction and Technology

Your company’s growth is always constrained by the amount of work you and your crew can effectively manage. You probably gained great efficiencies when you went from a paper-based system to one based on spreadsheets and other solutions, and your business grew accordingly. But if you’re like many companies, your momentum then slowed as a result of using too many different software products: one for estimating, one for billing, and so on.

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It’s easy to end up with so many of these programs installed on your company’s computers. Every new product that hits the market comes with the promise of solving some nagging issue, so the temptation to buy is strong. Perhaps you’ve recently decided to invest in software packages promising to deliver a multifaceted solution: combining accounting, scheduling, and document storage, for example. You buy the package… only to discover the hard way that some of the programs included in the suite don’t quite match your company’s needs. Most likely, you’ll end up augmenting, once again, with another new software purchase.

…as the business world made bigger commitments to computerization, and digitized more data and functions, weaknesses of standalone computing became apparent. In addition to integration and fragmentation problems, standalone computing was difficult to scale.

And so, as the software applications multiply, your office routines— and perhaps even your field routines—involve what has become a familiar experience for computer users: You click and open… click and open… click and open. Then, you copy and paste… copy and paste… and so on. That’s what it takes for information to be consistent across all of your programs. 

But what if the transfer of information was automatic? It may seem that boundaries between various software packages are inevitable. With each program tailored to meet a specific need, and each one the proprietary product of an individual company, it’s not intuitive that diverse programs would ever be able to interface. But systems are emerging which break down these barriers, allowing data transfer— and consequently, project management—to become easier.

The Cloud

The cloud vastly expanded possible solutions for this situation.

The first wave of technology adoption put computing power into every office in the form of individual computers. And that worked out well for a long time—office computers are secure and powerful, and completely transformed basic business functions like accounting and design.

But as the business world made bigger commitments to computerization, and digitized more data and functions, weaknesses of standalone computing became apparent. In addition to integration and fragmentation problems, standalone computing was also difficult to scale—as businesses and data sets got bigger, standalone solutions couldn’t keep up with the multiple office locations and larger files, and routine chores like data backup, software upgrades, and software customization turned into potentially business-crippling challenges. In response, computers began to connect via networks and the Internet. The latest and most useful way to connect computers is the cloud.

The ultimate promise of PaaS is to make relevant data—no matter how specialized it is or how it’s formatted— flow from program to program to wherever it’s needed in your firm.

Cloud computing transfers the ‘heavy lifting’ of calculation and data storage to remote computers and servers that are considerably faster and more powerful than available standalone computers. It can seem a little counterintuitive to improve business performance by relying on remote computers, but, in fact, cloud computing has been adopted quickly because it is extremely reliable and makes vast amounts of computing power available to small businesses and individuals. For example, voice recognition on smartphones is made possible by cloud computing. One method of using cloud computing is Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS). PaaS describes a particular category of cloud services, where a cloud service provider facilitates the delivery of multiple, related applications with dedicated hardware and consistent development tools. Application end users do not have to install software on their own computers, and those computers do not have to be especially powerful. PaaS also offers a proven way to make separate software solutions work together by providing common interfaces, automatic data transfer, and faster development of custom features. In the construction industry, PaaS can be used to integrate solutions as varied as project management, bidding and estimation, quantity calculations, and accounting.

Why is it called a platform?

A computer “platform” is an underlying system that supports the running of individual applications, or programs. Like platforms in the built environment, these metaphorical platforms provide a base structure, or scaffold, onto which multiple components can attach. The earliest platforms were operating systems, the fundamental programs that run on every personal computer. Now, a computer platform can refer to a variety of systems.

The applications that we’ve become used to installing on our personal computers are single “point” solutions: they typically perform only one type of task. But the user-end drawbacks to single point software solutions include:

  • Redundant, repetitive, and inconsistent data entry.
  • No way to implement real-time data entry in field.
  • Time-consuming training and support requirements across multiple software solutions.
  • Software upgrades, compatibility, and version control are major challenges.
  • Large data sets are in legacy ‘silos’ so their value can’t be leveraged.(Legacy systems are those programs or computer languages that are no longer kept current and are potentially outdated.)
  • Data backup and maintenance is complicated due to incompatible data formats.
  • Development of custom, business-specific features is difficult.

By enabling common interfaces and automatic data transference between multiple existing solutions, PaaS directly addresses all the challenges listed above by reducing training and support costs, sharply reducing data entry time while eliminating transcription errors,and facilitating enterprise-wide use of acquired data and knowledge. For example, some construction businesses have been able to apply decades-worth of project management data directly to their bidding process.

API: The Tech Acronym That Will Grow Your Company

The ultimate promise of PaaS is to make relevant data—no matter how specialized it is or how it’s formatted— flow from program to program to wherever it’s needed in your firm, like water flowing from field to orchard to garden and fostering growth wherever it’s directed. This information flow takes place via Application Program Interfaces, commonly called APIs. APIs are software development tools—standards, protocols, and software routines—that allow one software solution to access other solutions.

You are probably already familiar with some of the ways APIs assist you. Think about how 5 e-commerce sites use proprietary software to host their shopping pages, while allowing you to pay with PayPal and then switch to a FedEx, UPS, or USPS site to track shipment status. Historically, large businesses like PayPal have harnessed the power of APIs either by developing their own APIs or paying a fee to use third-party online software sharing tools. Such tools sometimes offered seamless stitching together of various software programs, but they were also known to hit snags, stalling rollout of new features and causing substantial budget overruns.

Like keys that open doors into new areas, APIs are used to create open communication between solutions used in a given enterprise, even if some legacy software is not API-enabled.

But like most software tools, continuing development of APIs has led to simpler, more reliable solutions that can be implemented by most firms in most industries—data  flow between programs continues to improve as APIs become more common and best practices emerge. For construction managers, a bidding program could use an API to ‘ask’ a company’s project management software for historical data on labor hours for particular kinds of projects, and receive the information in a compatible format that allows more precise labor estimates for prospective work. Over time, this kind of data sharing will make bidding more precise, and give users better information on project profitability.

The computer conventions affecting APIs are now standardized, typically open source, and developers routinely include APIs (with clear documentation) when developing new applications. Like keys that open doors into new areas, APIs are used to create open communication between solutions used in a given enterprise, even if some legacy software is not API-enabled.

Open communication between existing software can quickly reduce cutting and pasting, as well as data re-entry with all its associated transcription errors and headaches. But that’s just the beginning; API-enabled data flow is already adding new value to legacy systems in dozens of important ways, and new applications are being implemented weekly.

One exciting development in the current technology ecosystem is ‘industry-specific platforms’. When a platform developer understands the specialized needs of a particular industry—in other words, when the developer knows what tasks businesses need to complete on a regular basis, and where value exists in legacy data—he or she can build a platform that enables interoperability. In addition to providing out-of-the-box integration among various industry standard applications, companies that provide APIs are creating the opportunity for software developers and IT staff to create solutions that are more efficient and powerful within particular industries or firms.

So open-source, code-based APIs allow creativity to flourish; any developer can build upon the platform to extend the utility of existing software and bring new solutions to the overall user base.

Want more? Download the entire free eBook "Construction Software's Next Big Thing: The Platform."

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