Johanna Shikomba, a geologist at B2Gold’s Otjikoto project in Namibia, logs chips using the MX Deposit android application on a Samsung tablet. Credit: B2Gold
As mining and exploration companies become more dependent on software to run their business, there is a push to move towards cloud-based platforms as opposed to managing software systems on-premise. This article explores the benefits and drawbacks around moving your software systems to the cloud and presents some of the key considerations and approach options around integrating these platforms into your organization and day-to-day operations.
In my former career, my colleagues and I spent years travelling the world installing on-premise drillhole data management software for mining and exploration companies. Through that experience we gained a good understanding of the challenges that companies faced with the technology that was available at the time. Those experiences motivated us to start Minalytix and build a Software-as-a-Service platform named MX Deposit to help companies better manage their drillhole and sample data using modern technology.
What is cloud-based software?
Simply put, cloud-based software means that the software that you are using is hosted online, usually on an established cloud platform like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, or Google Cloud.
Also referred to as Software as a Service (SaaS), you are effectively renting the use of the software through a subscription as opposed to buying it outright and paying an annual maintenance fee for bug fixes and support. Cloud software is typically accessed through a web browser and often offers mobile apps so that you can work with your data offline.
When we founded Minalytix in 2013, the majority of mining and exploration companies that we worked with were cloud-averse. The main reason for this was concern around data security; companies were afraid of being hacked and having their data stolen.
Over the past few years, mining and exploration companies have become more open to the idea of using these solutions and storing their data on the cloud, due to the key benefits that they offer over their on-premise competition, including:
- Accessibility: You can access your cloud-based software from anywhere in the world using any device that has a web browser.
- Affordability and flexibility: Cloud software does not require an up-front capital investment and instead offers different subscription options which allow you to easily predict and manage your costs. This is beneficial to exploration and mining companies that need to throttle usage to support their business activities (e.g. drilling season). Also, if a given solution is not working well for your team, you can take your data and cancel your subscription without having to worry about walking away from a heavy investment.
- Less overhead: You do not need a server to host your application, nor do you need a resource to manage the server, install updates, or take backups. All these aspects are covered by the vendor. This allows you to focus on your core business strategies without having to worry about also being an IT expert.
- Staying current: Since there is nothing for you to install on your local device, when you login to your software you will have access to any of the new features or fixes that have been introduced by the vendor. A great example of this occurred recently when Intuit’s Quickbooks Online platform introduced their COVID-19 Relief resources, allowing subscribers to easily learn about relief opportunities being offered through the government and how these things impacted their business.
- Security: Despite companies having concerns around hosting their data on a cloud platform, most cloud providers employ security measures that are often beyond the capacity and affordability of most businesses, including enterprise level companies.
While there are several benefits to using cloud-based software, there are also some potential drawbacks (outside of security concerns), which can prevent some companies from making the move. These include:
- Connectivity: Cloud software requires an internet connection. If your device goes offline, then you will need to use a locally installed app to collect and manage your data until you get connected to a network. Offline apps are usually built for Android and iOS devices (phones and tablets) and may not be available for your laptop or desktop computer.
- Customization: Most cloud-based software is configurable, allowing you some degree of flexibility when using the software. However, since these solutions are often used by a large and diverse client base, company-specific requirements and intricacies can be challenging to have incorporated into the solution.
- Higher costs over time: Much like leasing a vehicle instead of buying outright, subscription-based software will cost more over time. Subscription costs can also increase over time to account for inflation or new features.
Approach Options and Key Considerations
Organizations may use different approaches when moving towards cloud-based solutions. While some are willing to go all-in, others may elect to take a slower phase-based approach, moving only certain functions or datasets to the cloud, or transitioning selected departments to use cloud-based apps.
In our experience, enterprise-level companies have more comprehensive policies in place that dictate how software systems and data are managed, especially when it comes to system access and data security. In these cases, moving apps or data to the cloud requires a lot of planning and co-ordination.
On the flip side, junior explorers and mid-tier mining companies typically have much less existing IT infrastructure and policy around how software and data are managed, allowing them to adopt and start using cloud-based solutions more quickly. We have had several clients sign-up and start using MX Deposit the very next day.
When thinking about migrating your software and data to the cloud, there are several things that need to be considered including:
- The reason(s) for moving to the cloud: While there are several benefits, companies that already have an established IT infrastructure, resources and strict policies around security and change management typically have a more difficult time transitioning to cloud solutions. It is important to be able to quantify/qualify the benefits that your organization will receive if you decide to make the move.
- Integration with existing on-premise systems and data: Organizations that run several different systems often need to be able to integrate the individual data sets. When considering the move to a cloud solution, you need to understand how you can access your data. Some cloud solutions allow direct integration through an application programming interface (API) while others may only allow you to export your data to a set of files. This is important since you do not want to introduce new process or work for your team to achieve the same results that they are already achieving today.
- Change management: Depending on the size of your organization, this is an especially important consideration. Companies with larger employee groups will need more time and resources to ensure a smooth and successful transition. Even in the case of simple applications, small changes to the look, feel, or flow can result in frustration and negative user experiences. Depending on the size of your team, a phased roll-out approach may yield more positive results since you will have an opportunity to review feedback from your pilot group and introduce the appropriate corrections before introducing the change to the entire user base.
- Disaster recovery: Ensuring that your data is secure and backed up on a regular basis is important. Work with your vendor to understand how this is being managed within your subscription and incorporate this into your disaster recovery plans.
Cloud solutions are becoming more popular in mining and exploration, and in some cases are becoming vital to the success of these businesses since they allow them to get up and running quickly and cost-effectively, and provide flexibility as projects change. As the technology and solution offerings continue to evolve, organizations will be able to leverage more and more value out of their subscriptions.
Rob Patterson is the COO & Co-Founder of Minalytix Inc, a Sudbury, Ont.-based software company that focuses on delivering data management solutions to the mining and exploration industries. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.