Cloud control rooms: An obvious choice?

The cloud can benefit mission-critical applications in control rooms, but there are cultural and logistical obstacles to be overcome, reports Kate O’Flaherty

A deluge of data from devices including smartphones, CCTV cameras and body-worn video is flooding into control rooms, putting pressure on legacy infrastructure. Add to this the increasing need for emergency services to cut costs amid shrinking budgets, and a move to cloud appears the obvious choice.

Indeed, the technology has the ability to manage large amounts of information while improving the efficiency of operations. It is with this in mind that vendors are already offering cloud solutions such as platform as a service (PaaS) and software as a service (SaaS). But take-up has been slow.

Among the obstacles to adoption, emergency services are naturally risk-averse and tend to see cloud as less secure than their legacy on-premises systems. In addition, there is a reluctance to invest in a technology that is not proven, resulting in a stalemate of organisations waiting for others to be the first to test cloud solutions.

But at the same time, industry experts warn, control rooms are unable to sustain their current position. Mike Isherwood, managing director of APD Communications, says his customers are under significant pressure: “They are under pressure to reduce cost and suppliers have deployed technology in a certain way – deploying servers and software on-site comes with massive costs.”

Adding to this, says Isherwood, the public is demanding new methods of interaction from emergency services such as web chat assistance and social media. “Normally, a supplier goes in and installs a piece of software and this stays the same for the next five years. But public demand changes and the technology becomes inadequate, which means operational teams cannot deliver.”

Financially unsustainable
According to Matthew Palmer, product strategy and propositions director, Capita Secure Solutions and Services, the current position of control rooms is “financially unsustainable”. With a number of interfaces for voice communications, email and more, there can be up to 20 different data sources coming into control rooms, Palmer points out. He says this siloed approach makes it much harder to be effective.

Richard Perkins, regional manager at NICE Systems, agrees, adding: “Control rooms are dealing with all sorts of digital information 999 calls – and add into that the data from body-worn video.”

Because it has the ability to handle these large amounts of data, Palmer says cloud is an obvious choice. “But our clients are risk-averse because they are using mission-critical applications, so there is no-one live on a full end-to-end cloud system yet.”

Indeed, says Palmer, there has always been concern that cloud isn’t as secure. However, he points out that the technology is actually more secure in many cases, especially since it ensures software is up to date.

Meanwhile, although cloud is often cited as a cheaper way to manage operations, cost can be an issue for control centre operators. Palmer explains: “A lot of solutions don’t work in isolation, they have to integrate with other critical systems and they need to share data. You want to put your solution in the cloud, but you still need to integrate with legacy systems and infrastructure. So, cloud running costs can be expensive: the system is in the cloud, data resides in a local data centre and there is lots of two-way traffic.”

It adds up to a perfect storm of complexity, so how are control rooms managing currently? According to Palmer, not very well. “It’s a widely recognised issue now, especially with digital evidence,” he says, adding that the EU update to data protection regulation (GDPR), which comes into effect in May, giving data subjects more control over their information, is going to add “another level of complexity”.

Glyn Boswell, technical director, public safety at Saab Technologies UK, agrees. “You can go into control rooms and see people doing things like copying and pasting telephone numbers into search engines. A lot of time is spent doing manual searches.”

Gearing up for change
Taking this into account, industry commentators say control rooms realise the need for cloud – and are planning for it – but the move will not be immediate. Overall, according to Yann Marston, strategic sales UK and Ireland at Motorola Solutions, there has been a change in buying behaviour over the past 12 months. “They are now looking at how they can get themselves ready for transformations which will take up to 10 years.”

In the UK, enthusiasm for the technology is also being fuelled by the government’s Cloud First policy that encourages cloud use in the public sector. But so far, says Marston, organisations have stayed away from mission-critical applications, instead taking back-office into the cloud. “They are seeing the economic benefits, but they have been concerned about whether that translates to the control room.”

According to Boswell, the biggest challenge in the UK is that timescales for the Emergency Services Network (ESN) are uncertain. He explains: “Getting ready for the ESN is one thing, but when you have contracts and solutions in place that are coming up to expiry, it’s a big problem for organisations – what do you procure?

“You can either sit on legacy technology for longer; or you can take a chance, thinking that ESN will slip and you will get return on investment from Airwave.”

But control rooms are still gearing up for change. Currently, Boswell says, many control room operators are looking into getting their integrated command and control systems (ICCS) cloud-ready.

When they do move to cloud platforms and applications, experts say control rooms can enjoy multiple benefits – and this is not limited to cost savings, Palmer says. “It’s not about cost savings; it’s about security and resilience. Cloud provides disaster-recovery capabilities for almost nothing.”

According to Isherwood, APD’s cloud native platform, which replaces existing ICCS, offers new features for free. In particular, he says, cloud is the enabler for the significant change being driven by ESN. “It’s a way to get your hands on the latest features without the cost.”

According to Ken Rehbehn, principal analyst at CritComm Insights: “The cloud-based mechanism can yield a more nimble approach, as well as new features and functionality. Cloud systems provide much greater scale and the ability to expand over time with additional resources.”

But ultimately, the technology helps to deliver results, such as improving workflow, Isherwood says, pointing out: “The operations teams don’t care if it’s cloud or on-site, they want it to perform and help with workflow.”

Cloud in action
Use-cases are limited, but there are a few examples of cloud control room technology in action. In the UK, the Department of Health uses Frequentis’s control room software to assist the Ambulance Trust with its evolution to the ESN. The Frequentis 3020 LifeX integration platform replaces the department’s previous ICCS.

The multimedia collaboration platform is hosted at data centres to provide a resilient national solution for control room operators, with an option for Scotland and Wales. The system is the largest ICCS in the UK with a capacity for almost 700 concurrent users. It allows the control centre staff to communicate with ambulances on the current Airwave network, and will connect to the ESN once it is operational.

Meanwhile, Isherwood says, APD implemented its first cloud control room in Sweden for Karolinska last year. “They have our cloud ICCS solution and use it to communicate with paramedics, ambulance and helicopter crews, paying on a per user, per month basis.”

Rehbehn cites the example of a project in Finland, which like many markets is consolidating its control rooms. The goal was to create an information system that is shared by emergency services including police, rescue and border guards.

It has led to a hi-tech ‘virtual control room’ consisting of multiple physical centres. Delivered by Insta DefSec, the new information system (dubbed ERICA) directs emergency calls nationwide. When a call comes in, it is primarily directed to the emergency centre closest to the caller. However, if the emergency centre is crowded or unable to respond, the system finds a free control room from the other sites. “The Finnish government has architected a rule-based system, so if one call centre is overwhelmed, the volume shifts fluidly to other control rooms,” Rehbehn explains.

Moving to cloud
There are many reasons to consider the technology, but Isherwood doesn’t expect entire control rooms to migrate to the cloud in one go, rather they will migrate on an application-by-application basis.

For now, Rehbehn believes it is “a rapidly evolving area”. He therefore advises authorities to establish strategic plans, programmes and teams to “stay abreast of the change and prepare for progress”.

He adds: “We have in our society so much information that can potentially flow into the control room. The nature of that data changes quickly over time and our technology needs to adapt to it.”

So, there are several considerations to take into account when looking at vendors, says Rehbehn. “Ideally your provider will have a pedigree in the discipline of handling these mission-critical applications, but also enough expertise in the more modern cloud-based app deployment. More likely, teams will converge under the umbrella of ‘systems integrator’, which makes sure there are elements of different disciplines coming together.”

According to Robert Nitsch, director, public safety at Frequentis, end-users should apply cloud to one area first before committing to other applications. “Meanwhile, check you can retrieve your data if you need to change vendors,”
he advises.

In addition, a lot of vendors talk about control room SaaS – which some dismiss as a marketing term. Therefore, Boswell advises: “End-users should ask, ‘What do you mean by SaaS?’ Cloud has its benefits, but organisations need to ask, ‘Ultimately, what do I get?’ It sounds modern, it’s aligned with government policy to move to cloud, but what actually is it?”

He adds: “Generally, organisations should be focused on the outcome rather than the technology. Instead of asking for cloud, say, ‘I want to scale on demand, I want to pay as I go, and how will you supply that to me?’ Cloud ranges from being hosted off-premises to a solution across multiple data centres that can scale infinitely. People take advantage of the ambiguity around the term.”

Overall, taking the current situation into account, in the future Boswell predicts there will be fewer procurements for individual component systems. “We will start seeing procurement for integrated platforms, but first we need outcome-based tenders.”

He therefore advises: “State the problem, not the way the issue should be solved.”

Meanwhile, Peter Prater, chair of ICCRA and MD of Hexagon Safety & Infrastructure UK, says: “In procurement, don’t just think about cost, think about the platform and how it integrates. Vendors are trying to lock you in, but you want it to be interoperable with your digital evidence management solution.”

Obsolescence is also a consideration, says Marston. “Obsolesce is always a challenge for customers so they need to plan projects carefully.”

When considering cloud for the control room, it is also important to understand security, says Marston. For example, he says: “Have you performed penetration testing; what’s the ability to access the cloud service? If you are taking this off premises, you need to sit down with your suppliers and the security team and ensure that data is protected.”

Isherwood adds that control room operators and vendors need to rethink the way they view applications. “Cloud helps to deliver better workflow. Forget the vertical applications; they were just driven by technology providers. Rather than technology vendors dictating to the operations team, the team is now in control.”

Future cloud
So, there are many factors driving control rooms towards cloud. But what does the future hold? Palmer thinks within three to five years, some UK public safety agencies will be running mission-critical applications out of the cloud.

According to Palmer, users are starting to take steps in the right direction, preparing for cloud migration by mandating areas such as web-based technology. “Your apps must be delivered by the web as this provides the transition to cloud. One client said, ‘In three years’ time, we don’t want any local infrastructure.’ So, they are buying solutions that will open them up to cloud in the future.”

But even so, Isherwood predicts the overall transition will be slow. “I think we will start relativity slowly in terms of volume going to the cloud. It will start with people looking at individual applications.”

Yet at the same time, he adds: “The moment the market recognises that a cloud platform is an enabler to a national standard but has the ability to have apps written to it to serve local agendas, organisations will start migrating: they can share data in the background so national databases can be segregated locally, but also share securely on demand.”

It is clear there is a lot of potential, but it is important to get cloud right. Rehbehn says: “The downside is, there are mission-critical apps that cannot fail. So as a conservative operation, agility needs to be embraced with caution and respect for damage that might happen if there’s a fault.”

Therefore moving to cloud solutions such as PaaS for control rooms becomes a balancing act, says Rehbehn. “They want the improved economics and features, but this must be balanced with the imperative to deliver robust, reliable mission-critical support to the community and emergency services workers.”

Control room cloud is a complex area, but the challenges driving organisations towards the technology are ongoing. It is fair to say that control rooms will be slow to embrace cloud, but in 10 years’ time they may wonder why they waited so long to adopt the technology.