MRO Magazine

Cover Feature: CMMS on the web. Is it viable?

Computerized Maintenance Management Systems (CMMSs) have been in the industrial mainstream for at least a decade. Many maintenance departments have progressed beyond their initial installations and ar...


November 1, 2001
By Morris Berengut

Computerized Maintenance Management Systems (CMMSs) have been in the industrial mainstream for at least a decade. Many maintenance departments have progressed beyond their initial installations and are now using a second or third generation of their program. They have already experienced the pain and frustration of their initial CMMS implementation and now are on the lookout for newer products that provide additional flexibility or ease of use. Others are seeking alternatives in terms of capabilities and services.

One of the options worth examining is the use of a CMMS application service provider (ASP), service bureau or application host that offers access to a CMMS through the Internet’s World Wide Web (or simply, the web). What this essentially means is that you don’t have to purchase a CMMS outright but can still gain access to all the benefits of a CMMS directly from your own computer keyboard.

A web-based CMMS solution can be good for both first-time and experienced users who are looking for a new product or product/service combination. This article examines some of the pros and cons of using a service bureau for your CMMS application.

Vendor’s setup

The service bureau or software vendor will have one or more CMMS programs operating at its website. These programs will provide access to the user through the web. The program is usually installed on a web server, not on your computer. The web server is the vendor’s computer and you access it when you log on to the appropriate website.

When you want to access your CMMS, you’ll need to use a web browser such as Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator. Of course, your computer must first be connected to the Internet through an Internet Service Provider (ISP) such as Bell’s Sympatico service or through your company’s own network connection.

Once you pass the security setup at the vendor’s site, you gain access to the CMMS program. It should appear as if you are accessing the software and data as though it was installed on your own computer.

Service bureaus are rarely operated by the CMMS software developer. Most developers handle just product development, sales and service. Sometimes even the software support is provided by a third party company. Over time, software developers have found that on-line support, help desks and other similar services can be difficult and expensive to provide and are often more effectively and efficiently handled by a service specialty company.

Sometimes you’ll find that a service bureau has been added to the traditional services provided by a CMMS consultant. In other cases a software support or help desk provider may offer a CMMS service.

There are a wide variety of services provided by service bureaus in addition to CMMS access. You may need or want certain options and their availability may aid the decision about which service bureau you choose to use.

Range of services

The services provided by the service bureau may include the following:

Install the required software on your system. This is usually just a web browser such as Microsoft’s Internet Explorer or Netscape’s Navigator. Sometimes additional software is required to run analysis and other routines that cannot be performed over the web.

Setup and configure the software. This includes setting up data tables and maintenance standards.

Create custom reports and data-gathering formats.

Set up initial data such as PM routines. This may include services usually provided by CMMS consultants.

Gather data such as equipment and spares inventory and enter into the system.

Enter work orders from e-mails or faxed work requests.

Create regular reports for the use of maintenance workers, managers and senior management. This can include producing maintenance work orders, backlog reports and monthly histories.

Pros and cons of service bureaus

There are many reasons to consider using an Internet service bureau but you must make sure you understand the costs and benefits.

The pros of web-based CMMS

1. You are not making the same financial commitment to the technology. It may be easier to justify a monthly fee that make can be expensed, rather than make a large, one-time purchase cost for an in-house CMMS program.

2. The decision about the CMMS software doesn’t have the same finality to it as a purchased program. Although you likely will have to make some commitment in terms of contract length, such as two or three years, you may be able to negotiate a trial period of several months. You don’t have to install the software on your own computer, and you may be able to assess the software effectively during a trial period.

Keep in mind that there may be a problem moving your data to another service bureau or to an in-house system after the trial, if you want to try another test. When reviewing the software offered by the vendor, it is critical to examine the data structure and evaluate the ease of transferring your data to another application. If it is not possible, all the work of inputting the data will have to be repeated. Most common databases are ODBC Compliant. What this means is that it will be easier to move the data within this structured environment from program to program. Be aware that while exporting data may appear to be easy, there may be extra effort and costs involved to import the data into another program.

3. The investment in computer technology is not as great. By operating over the web, your computers likely will not have to have the same processing capacity as they would need to run the software locally. Also, you don’t have to have all your workstations networked to a server at your location. Each workstation requires only an Internet connection and that can be individually set up or be accessed through your own company’s network connection.

4. Networking of your computers or workstations is not required. If your maintenance operation is geographically spread out, then access to the CMMS through the Internet may be the solution you require. Internet services are inexpensive and reliable and don’t require any systems administration, as does an internal network of a reasonable size. Also, you may not need a network administrator and this can also be a significant cost saving.

5. The CMMS Software is usually updated at the service bureau as new versions are released. You don’t have to worry about checking for compatibility (you should expect the service bureau to test and check the program update and ensure it will present no problems for users). With an in-house system, you’ll need to do this yourself or get help from your company’s computer specialists or a consultant.

6. Administrative tasks such as data backup are taken care of for you.

7. You may find that the ability to purchase additional services such as PM setup, data entry and data analysis can help you through stressful times when your staff is focused on other work.

8. The speed of operation of the program may be faster, compared with networked in-house software. This depends on the software and the service bureau’s computer system architecture. The details of this can be quite technical, but you may want to discuss this area with the potential vendors when doing your analysis.

The cons of web-based CMMS

1. The cost over time may be greater than that of an owned system. Often the service bureau will charge what amounts to a lease cost for the software. This may be equivalent to the full cost of the software over two or three years, without the actual ownership accruing to you. In addition, you’ll pay a site hosting charge to the service bureau for computer use and technical support. This means that as long as you use the service bureau, you will be paying a fee. Sometimes you can negotiate a lease-to-own arrangement, but this is traditionally a more expensive option.

2. You have less control over your data since it doesn’t reside on your computer or in your facility. You may be anxious about the security of it. What will happen to your data and application if the service bureau goes out of business? You should ensure you have access to b
ackups of the data. In spite of any explicit or implied protection, the potential for disruption of service exists and may be unacceptable to you.

3. In addition, there is the issue of security in terms of illicit access to your data. Hackers have penetrated extremely secure websites and should this occur to your vendor, it could mean the loss or corruption of data or, worse, the loss of data confidentiality.

4. Integration of CMMS data with other systems in your organization will be more difficult. For example, if you wish to integrate the Work Order system with your financial system, it likely will be more challenging, since the CMMS data is not part of your company’s system. It won’t be impossible, however, and usually the roadblocks can be averted or eliminated with advance planning.

5. Depending on the service bureau’s system and software architecture, the speed may be slower. This is especially true if you plan on using a dial-up Internet connection instead of the more costly high-speed access.

6. Most CMMS programs offered on the web are low- or mid-range in terms of features. If you are looking for a high-end system with all the bells and whistles, it will be more difficult to find, since many of these features are extremely challenging to program for Internet use.

As you can see, in most cases, for every advantage there is a disadvantage. You have to evaluate the situation for your organization to see if a web-based CMMS could be suitable. Keep in mind that choosing this service is only part of the equation. You also need to analyze and select from among the different CMMS software packages and service bureaus which provide the programs.

The criteria for selecting software is the same for both on-line and in-house programs. However, there are certain areas you should examine regarding the service bureau. You should discuss the services and the software with the reference contacts provided. If possible, visit the companies that are using the service already.

Also, visit the service bureau’s office. This should be a mandatory step so you can be assured that the operation is professionally run. It’s best if a vendor has been in operation as a service bureau for several years, although you won’t find many that have been around for too long due to the relative newness of the web-based CMMS concept.

Morris Berengut, P.Eng., is vice-president of technical services for Physical Planning Technologies Inc., Toronto, a provider of capital asset planning services and technology implementation to facilities owners and managers worldwide. Mr. Berengut’s maintenance and facilities experience spans more than 24 years and includes project management, facilities engineering and design, maintenance management consulting, and operations management.