Product Lifecycle Management (PLM)

Does PLM Belong in the Cloud?

25 Jan, 2012 By: Eric Marks

Accessing data, processes, and business intelligence in the cloud can help global companies leverage critical resources and manage complex analytics — if it's done correctly.

There is a lot of talk about cloud computing today, and its exponentially growing presence among enterprise technologies, particularly product lifecycle management (PLM). The adoption rate of PLM "in the cloud," however, has been slow. Customers are having a difficult time deciphering when, how, and even whether to use PLM in a cloud. Some users feel apprehension about moving sensitive information — such as that managed in PLM — to the cloud. Adoption is gradually gaining momentum, however, as more customers learn about the available options and advantages.

PLM software is branching out from its traditional stronghold in engineering-intensive discrete manufacturing and moving aggressively into process-oriented industries such as energy, food and beverage, and consumer goods, according to a study released by the ARC Advisory Group in November 2011. Cloud-based PLM is garnering more support and higher adoption as these industries start to deploy newer technology and more evolved IT computing environments.

However, there is still quite a bit of education about cloud-based PLM — and specifically, about how can it benefit enterprises — needed in the market. The easiest way to visualize cloud computing is to think of it as a grouping of remote computers. You can harness the power of those computers on an as-needed basis, regardless of where the computers reside, who owns them, who can access them, etc.

As for the benefits for PLM customers, PwC Principal Technology Leader Tom Degarmo explained it best: "Cloud computing accelerates innovation and improves time-to-market successes and offers added flexibility within PLM applications. Overall it can improve connections across a company's network of suppliers, time zones, and cultures. It enables an extendable enterprise."

Four Cloud-Based PLM Strategies

According to Omnify Software President and CEO Chuck Cimalore, "Product lifecycle management is a set of diverse business strategies, processes, and applications. To identify the right projects, processes, and problems that can be solved by introducing cloud-based PLM solutions can be a tall order when you factor in the importance of addressing ownership, location, and privacy/security issues." Many analysts agree, and are working with PLM customers who are grappling with the concept of cloud computing and how best to address these issues.

Analysis firm Frost and Sullivan reports that most people refer to public clouds when they talk about cloud computing. However, public clouds are just one of the strategies being deployed in PLM applications:

  • Public clouds are typically systems that are shared by multiple customers who use the system, and who have no control over who their fellow users can be.
  • Private clouds, in contrast, are available for the sole benefit of a single company/entity where cloud data is secure and protected.
  • Community clouds incorporate only specially selected companies with common or related goals (such as partners, channels, and supply/design chain members).
  • Hybrid clouds extend a private cloud onto a public cloud for specific activities and on an as-need basis. The benefit of a hybrid approach that incorporates a public cloud is that it provides extra performance scalability for the private cloud.

Identifying Types of Cloud Services

In addition to the four types of clouds described above, there are three segments of cloud-based technology: SaaS, PaaS, and IaaS.

Short for software as a service (also known as software on demand), SaaS is deployed over the Internet and is made available to users when requested. It is usually purchased through a payment-per-use plan or on a subscription basis. According to Forrester Research, SaaS is the oldest and most mature segment of cloud computing; examples include, Netsuite, and Google Gmail, among others.

This acronym stands for platform as a service, a combination of a development platform and solution stack that is delivered as a service on demand. Forrester describes it as an infrastructure that can be used to develop a new software app or extend existing ones without the initial costs of buying and implementing additional hardware and software. PaaS often can extend the capabilities of existing SaaS solutions, such as Forrester's examples: (from, Google App Engine, and Microsoft Azure.

IaaS. Infrastructure as a service provides an environment for running user-built virtualized systems, sometimes termed as a platform virtualization environment. It encompasses service, software, data-center, and network equipment delivered as a single bundle. Forrester cites Amazon EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud), GoGrid, and Flexiscale as examples of IaaS environments.

A Hybrid Cloud Case Study

What does cloud computing mean for business strategy? How will cloud computing impact any enterprise more broadly? Mevion Medical Systems, which develops radiation therapy technologies for cancer treatment, provides one example of that impact.

Mevion has a workforce distributed throughout the globe and requires its business solutions to be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, on all company-supported platforms (PC, Mac, Linux, Droid, and iOS). According to Mevion IT Manager Edward Quinn, "Mevion is leveraging a hybrid cloud in order to be able to scale quickly and efficiently to distributed cloud data centers at far less cost than purchasing expensive equipment or renting/building out corporate data centers. The IT department can leverage the advanced international infrastructure already put in place by leading cloud computing companies, and activate and pay only for the services that its business needs."

Achieving agility is a key component of the company’s business plan. Cloud computing will allow Mevion to expand quickly while providing a wide range of solutions. It also enables the company to decrease overall technology costs and provide a reliable, agile IT infrastructure.

Integrating SaaS, PaaS, and IaaS.
The Mevion hybrid cloud computing architecture utilizes both internal and external cloud solutions that will provide SaaS, PaaS, and IaaS solutions. The architecture will support a distributed workforce utilizing key security measures, integrate with the corporate data center to provide data integrity, and scale across multiple external solutions to ensure reliability.

The Mevion IT department has begun deployment, and expects to have a fully functioning cloud-based environment by the end of 2012. "IT has been researching this strategy since 2009, so it does not happen overnight," said Quinn. "Our IT group needed to ensure that their hybrid cloud computing strategy would ensure data security, integrity, and reliability. Going forward, all business solutions must adhere to this architecture."

"Our entire company will be on the Mevion hybrid cloud architecture, depending on the employee’s job function," Quinn continued. "All employees in the company utilize the Omnify Software Empower PLM Solution on a daily basis from their computers, smartphones, and tablets, both within the company network and through remote secured VPN [virtual private network] connections."

Integrating outsiders.
Many organizations, including Mevion, are beginning to understand that they can benefit from including outside suppliers in their cloud. The elastic nature of cloud platforms makes it possible to scale up when needed, which can greatly extend simulation, visualization, and computation products.

According to Quinn, Mevion's executives will explore that option in the future. "When we move Omnify Empower PLM to a secured cloud platform, the usage may expand to support authorized company business providers and partners," said Quinn.

The Analysts' Perspective — and the Customers'

Many industry analysts covering IT — including Forrester, Gartner, Frost & Sullivan, ARC, and The Yankee Group — agree that the power and potential of cloud computing, properly leveraged and deployed, can have a significant impact on the PLM industry.

Meanwhile, PLM customers are carefully evaluating their business processes to determine how to run them seamlessly and securely connect them to cloud-based data sets. Forrester observed that the overall objective for most companies implementing PLM in a cloud is to optimize productivity and achieve an actual ROI from their cloud deployment. Thus far, however, few are fully deployed. Even though the technology has matured, cloud-based PLM is still in its infancy.

We can expect to see this "infant" grow up quickly, however, thanks to the great benefits at stake. Accessing data, processes, and business intelligence in the cloud from a PLM platform can, if done correctly, enable global companies to leverage critical information sources, maximize expert resources, and manage complex analytics — all from within their PLM systems.

About the Author: Eric Marks

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