CAQ-SOFTWARE IN THE CLOUD: ON THE ROAD TO THE FUTURE
Cloud computing and SaaS – not merely viewed as developer buzzwords by software manufacturers but rather as important milestones on the road to achieving large-scale digitalization. Just what shape specific solutions in the quality management field could take – and which challenges need to be faced – can currently be experienced at Böhme & Weihs in Wuppertal.
One term that crops up again and again in the discussion on the broad topic of “digitalization” is: cloud computing. Certainly, we are all familiar with this term – and in times of Corona, all the more so from a professional perspective – especially as many companies are now providing employees working in a home office environment with all the information they need to handle their paperwork in a cloud setup. But what exactly do they mean when CAQ software manufacturers talk about cloud solutions? And what are the advantages?
CAQ in the cloud means – to put it simply – providing and using CAQ software via an Internet platform. CAQ data and functions can be accessed from any location via a web browser and specialized applications. This offers the users of such solutions enormous flexibility as it means that all the relevant quality information is available at all times – worldwide. The possibility of networking beyond company boundaries is also feasible – totally in keeping with the Smart Factory concept.
FLEXIBILITY IS IN DEMAND
There are various ways to achieve a cloud-based CAQ solution . In a so-called “private cloud”, the respective server is either located on the company’s own premises or rented from a cloud provider. In both cases, access is only possible from within the company’s own network. In a so-called “public cloud”, several companies access a generalized infrastructure (resource sharing) – with access provided via a public access point. This eliminates both the investment costs of procuring and setting up hardware and ongoing maintenance and servicing costs as well as the licensing costs of the operating system etc. Instead, a rental fee is due for usage of the cloud. In addition to these – or rather: in between –, there are numerous alternative models. For instance, a hybrid version in which the CAQ software, for example the ERP system, is operated via a cloud although it is actually installed onsite, i.e. on the company’s own server, may be a possible solution. Or vice versa.
Flexibility is the cue because every company works differently and pursues different digitalization strategies – also where their quality management efforts are concerned. Software manufacturers need to be open to this situation and provide solutions which are equally flexible in order to meet the different needs of their customers.
THE BEST PREREQUISITES
The basic prerequisite for being able to offer their own CAQ software as a cloud-based solution was already implanted in the genes of Böhme & Weihs’ CASQ-it software. Right from day one, CASQ-it was designed as a server software system – undergoing consistent further development to achieve a solution that is now ideally suited to both today’s and tomorrow’s browser technology. This includes, among other things, strictly isolating individual work processes through dedicated operating system processes, platform and device independence, usage as a web application (not requiring client installation) or a native/desktop application with a high level of integration with MS Office or other software. Platform independence, in particular, guarantees a high degree of future-proofing and, accordingly, investment security for the customers. Despite a range of further developments, some of which were considerable, and constant changes to the various computer systems involved, the structure of CASQ-it was designed to be able to keep pace with such platform modernizations right from the very outset – which it really does.
In addition, CASQ-it’s software architecture consists of several security layers designed to protect the customer’s CAQ system from external attacks. Everyone – be they an employee, third-party system, customer or supplier – must be authenticated and accordingly authorized – without exception. This involves checking exactly which rights individuals requesting access have been granted with respect to launching CAQ modules, using data and information and running specific functions. In addition, all communication steps are encrypted using TLS. This provides a secure basis for cloud usage.
CONTAINERIZATION AND SAAS
Given the above-mentioned prerequisites, the current buzzwords for Böhme & Weihs on the road to achieving “CASQ-it in the cloud” are: SaaS, i.e. “Software as a Service”, and containerization.
Containerization has become an important distribution channel in the software development area. It involves “packaging” software in a type of container – a standardized, multilayered data container – so that it runs consistently and stably in any infrastructure. This technology is particularly suited to a CAQ software environment. As in the past, the range of services provided by the software is still compiled on a company-specific basis and made available in one of these virtual containers. Let us use an image from the logistics sector to explain this: Just as different goods are packed in an ISO container in a standardized manner for shipment by sea, CAQ installations are similarly packed in a single software container. This allows them to be processed by all the companies involved, including the cloud provider. These containers are then made available in the cloud infrastructure – with final configurations to the CAQ software being made prior to operation. Now all that is needed is a link to the cloud installation and a web browser to be able to flexibly access this CAQ solution.
In addition to this general simplicity, the automation factor is another advantage as this again saves effort, time and costs: Making the software available in the customer’s production environment does not need to be done manually but is instead an automatic process – which is referred to as “continuous deployment”. It is easy to swap out individual containers. For the CASQ-it solution this means that: The software modules packed in the container can be swapped out individually. This is important in the case of an update, for example, as it is no longer necessary to update the complete software package. Instead, this can be done using individual module updates. In addition, it is possible to recover an older software state at any time since each modification is automatically documented. This means that each state can be reproduced – which also helps Böhme & Weihs, for example, when investigating and alleviating errors in a specific application.
It is important to note that: CASQ-it does not need to be redeveloped to be cloud-capable. Features, modules and customer-specific settings are transferred from a customer’s onsite installation to the cloud as required. Customers can then simply continue to work in their familiar environments as all their settings are retained. The aim is to also allow the customization of the customer’s software solution to be carried out in the cloud version, i.e. the respective Customer Management contact should still be able to make adjustments without the need for time-consuming and expensive reprogramming work.
Last but not least: The way in which CASQ-it is handled will not change in the cloud version. For the customers, operating the system will be the same as always. However, what will be new and more convenient is being able to access the desired information from anywhere and much more flexibly.
ON THE ROAD TO SAAS
Böhme & Weihs plan to offer their CASQ-it cloud version as an SaaS solution. For their customers, this has the advantage that these will then be able to use the software and IT infrastructure as a service – thus allowing them to concentrate fully on their respective core businesses. They will also no longer have to bear the costs of investing in and maintaining hardware.
The development of a functional and economical solution to achieve this goal is currently one of the main tasks facing the Böhme & Weihs team. They are also particularly focusing on the extremely important topic of “customization”, as already described above, in order to achieve the best possible results for their customers. Most of the technical prerequisites have already been met and the company is well-positioned. Now, it is strategically important to take this status as a basis for constructive work in a special test environment and on a presentation system in order to be able to push the development forward effectively. An ongoing exchange with key users will allow the software to be further optimized.
During this process, information security is naturally of fundamental importance. After all, quality management involves extremely sensitive company data. Not only is it necessary to ensure that the established targets with respect to protecting confidentiality, availability and integrity are met, the criteria set down by the Federal Office for Information Security in their “Cloud Computing Compliance Criteria Catalogue” (C5) must also be taken into account in order to provide customers with comprehensive protection. However, it is important to realize that the use of a cloud solution does not release users from their own responsibility with respect to checking out concepts for continuing their own business operations or the general legal framework. Information security is never a one-way street.
NEXT STEPS AND LONG-TERM GOALS
The goals with regard to CASQ-it are quite clear: Target the intrinsic capabilities of the software architecture to be able to offer CASQ-it as a fully cloud-based SaaS model. Provide a modular, containerized software solution in order to offer the individual CASQ-it modules on a flexible basis. Enable the secure transfer of customer data records to the cloud. Ensure that CASQ-it customization continues to be offered in the cloud solution so as to still be able to respond to customer-specific needs in a target-oriented manner. And: Offer support by all the recognized cloud providers so that customers can choose according to their own preferences and, where required, use the same provider for several different software solutions.
In the future, it is planned to continue to offer CASQ-it as an onsite installation alongside a parallel cloud version. Besides this, there will be the option of alternatively selecting a hybrid solution, i.e. a mixed form, in which some parts of the software solution will remain on the company’s own server in the shape of permanently installed modules – with other modules coming from the cloud. Here, the same holds true: Flexibility is key.