The cloud has transformed the way we work, study, play and relax. For a technology most of us use every day, we don’t think too hard about “the cloud”. We blithely save our data there, back up our photos, store our email, use software-as-a-service, but few of us understand it.
The cloud is a global network of interconnected servers we can access via the internet. We can store data, run applications, stream videos, manage email, or carry out many other activities on the servers. With an internet connection, we don’t need to run the apps or store the data on our own devices or manage our own servers.
Virtualization enables the cloud. On a host machine, cloud companies create simulated computers, known as virtual machines (VMs), that act as if they’re independent computers running on their own separate hardware. You can’t see into other people’s virtual machines, and they can’t see into yours. This is far more efficient and cost-effective than having a separate server for each customer – or buying and running your own servers.
Types of Cloud Services
You’ll find four categories of cloud services. Some people call these the cloud computing stack because they build on top of one another.
Infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) allows you to rent infrastructure, such as servers or VMs. Digital Ocean and AWS EC2 are examples of IaaS.
Platform-as-a-service (PaaS) provides an online environment to develop, test, deliver and manage software without having to set up or manage the underlying infrastructure. Windows Azure is the best-known example of PaaS.
Software-as-a-service (SaaS), such as Google Docs, delivers software online. It hosts and manages the applications, maintenance and infrastructure. This is the cloud service that most end-users are familiar with.
Function-as-a-service (FaaS) insulates developers from the lower layers in the cloud computing stack. Developers upload specific blocks of code, which are triggered by certain events. FaaS applications use no IaaS resources until the code is triggered. Most end-users are unaware of FaaS, but Google Cloud, Amazon and IBM Functions are in common use.
Pros and Cons of Cloud Platforms
Nothing is ever perfect. Cloud platforms are fantastic when it comes to flexibility and scalability, up-time, simplicity, and off-site backups. On the other hand, they face ongoing challenges with privacy, security, and authentication.
Before cloud platforms took off, companies had to buy and maintain their own servers. If they wanted to expand, they had to buy more servers. Cloud platforms lower the barrier to entry. Companies can rent server access from a cloud company rather than buying their own; when companies want to expand, they simply rent more. The cloud company deals with the hardware and maintenance headaches, and other companies can focus on their own businesses.
Using VMs simplifies backups and redundancies. If one server goes down, companies can restart their VM on another server. With multi-site servers, backups can be spread out, removing the chance of data loss or downtime from a single failure.
Anyone with an internet connection can access cloud services from anywhere. There’s no need to send files back-and-forth if you can access them in the cloud, and no need to go to the office for specific software if the software runs in the cloud. Staff and clients can access data and software from anywhere on their personal devices. When they need to work with the same data from different locations in real-time, cloud platforms are the only viable solution. This is the primary advantage of cloud platforms in the maritime industry.
While internet access at sea is improving, it’s still got a long way to go. Until ships have reliable, affordable internet access, it would be foolhardy to rely on cloud platforms for any critical functions.
To make it worse, pricing for some cloud services can be opaque and convoluted. In particular, bandwidth limits and data caps can lead to unexpected expenses.
In the maritime industry, we’re used to juggling multiple countries’ legal requirements. The cloud complicates things even further. Data privacy and access laws vary wildly. Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) applies to any organisation which has a “real and effective activity, even a minimal one, exercised through stable arrangements,” in the EEA. As Maritime Cyber Advisors point out, this could include any ship with EEA crew, or using a server in the EEA. Are the laws compatible between your flag state, port state, management or manning agency, cloud provider, and the location of the servers? It might not matter – or it might cause trouble.
Cloud Applications in Maritime
Cloud services have potential in any situation where widely dispersed parties need access to shared information and resources – including the maritime industry. Ship management, including procurement and bunkering, crewing and training, and performance optimisation are obvious targets for cloud platforms. However, as the maritime industry moves to digital solutions, cloud services have a growing part to play.
As ships and ports implement internet-of-things (IoT) technologies, cloud platforms become critical to monitoring and managing them. From engine components to shipping containers, remote access to IoT sensors enables technicians, ship managers and cargo planners to collaborate and make decisions based on real-time data.
Most ships don’t carry IT specialists. With adequate internet access, SaaS solutions can provide simple, secure and reliable alternatives to locally-run software.
Designed specifically for the maritime industry, Dualog’s shared platform goes back to basics and optimises core cloud functions like email, data sharing and cybersecurity. It enables reliable services even in low-bandwidth situations.
A shared SaaS platform is an effective way to implement real-time data sharing between ships, ports, agents, and relevant authorities. This would improve efficiency and reduce workloads for all parties. The IMO-endorsed Maritime Connectivity Platform (MCP) aims to develop a common standard to facilitate information exchange between cloud-connected communication systems. While not MCP compliant, Neurored has already taken steps in that direction. Neurored facilitates easy collaboration between parties like freight forwarders, carriers, shippers, ports and terminals.
For years, sites like eBay and Amazon have linked customers looking for a product with customers selling that product. In a similar fashion, maritime cloud platforms like the Global Shipping Alliance’s Marine Online connect charterers with ships, ships with suppliers and service companies, and crew with training courses.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a scramble for alternatives to in-person ship surveys, vetting, and technician visits. Classification Societies including Bureau Veritas and Lloyds Register have started carrying out remote surveys. Platforms like CloudVisit use real-time communication, video and scheduling software to facilitate remote surveys and inspections.
Cloud platforms have changed the way we interact with technology, and the maritime industry is finally catching up. The fact that stakeholders in the industry are scattered around the world is a feature of the industry, not a bug.
As the internet has become more accessible at sea, we’ve seen a boom in cloud platforms. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated both trends, and we can expect that to continue. While the cloud isn’t a perfect solution, in the maritime industry it can be a clear improvement on the status quo.
Nic Gardner is a Maritime Technology Analyst at Thetius. She is a master mariner who holds an unlimited UK CoC and has seagoing experience on capesize bulk carriers, ro-pax ferries, sail training ships, hospital ships, general cargo tramp ships, container ships and fisheries protection boats. When she is not at sea, Nic writes about a range of topics including technology and the maritime industry. Nic is also the author of “Merchant Navy Survival Guide: Survive & thrive on your first ship”, a book to give aspiring seafarers the knowledge and tools they need to make a success of their first trip to sea.