Cloud Computing for Railway Companies – Setting the Course for Greater Flexibility .

High performance, straightforward updates, less hassle – there are plenty of arguments in favour of the cloud. More specifically, railway companies can greatly benefit from the option to outsource their resource planning to an external data centre and commission a third party to perform all technical management tasks as a service.


In recent years, German IT-specialist IVU Traffic Technologies has gained extensive experience by managing their leading resource planning solution, IVU.rail, using the software-as-a-service model.

Terms such as ‘data centre’, ‘cloud’ and ‘software as a service’ (SaaS) are becoming increasingly common, but what do they actually mean? What is the cloud all about?

The following article outlines these concepts and describes how they can benefit railway companies. The focus here will be on resource planning, which sets exacting standards for the performance and stability of IT systems.

The Cloud Concept: A Secure Data Safe

Data centres form the backbone of all cloud concepts. These are facilities containing a large number of servers, along with all the accompanying technical components and infrastructure. The most significant advantage of this centralised and specialised structure is the guaranteed security and availability of all data.


Data centres are subject to stringent security standards that most companies are not in a position to fulfill within their own facilities. Each data centre has an energy supply that is secured at multiple levels to provide enough electricity for the servers and air-conditioning systems required to cool the computers. The connection to the power supply is usually redundant and is established via at least two independent power stations.


This means, in the possible case of one power station failing, energy to the data centre will remain uninterrupted, as power will then automatically be sourced from the other station. And if the external power stations fail completely, large power generators are present to provide an emergency power supply for several days if necessary.


A data centre is also equipped to deal with a broad range of other possible incidents. Strict building regulations prevent damage caused by storms and floods; high-sensitivity sensors can instantly detect a fire breaking out; and special gas extinguishers are on hand to contain any fires without damaging the sensitive hardware.


In addition to physically protecting the computers, certified data centres safeguard the stored data in accordance with ISO/IEC 27001. Various security mechanisms are in place to prevent hackers or unauthorised individuals from accessing information or disrupting operations. This is why it is actually better to store data in an external data centre than in an in-house server room.

Software as a Service: Everything From a Single Source

If a company not only operates its systems in the cloud, but also outsources the daily management of its software, this is known as ‘software as a service’ (SaaS). This principle offers a range of advantages, including: the installation of patches and updates; the exchange of defective server components and old hardware; an emergency response in the event of component failures – all this is taken care of by the service provider itself. This means that companies receive the full package from a single source.

To use the software, all that users require is an ordinary PC or thin client and an Internet connection. The program itself runs independently within the data centre. The on-screen content and user input are transferred via Citrix Protocol or any other industry standard program. User won’t notice any difference in the typical on-site system operations.

With the IVU.cloud, IVU Traffic Technologies has been offering its customers – including major European national railways – the opportunity to use its integrated resource planning system IVU.rail in the SaaS model for some time now. This solution offers clear benefits to transport companies – after all, who is better suited to operate software and understand all of its features, right down to the very last detail, than the original manufacturer?

This is why since 2014 many of our customers, including some of Europe's leading railway companies, have decided to shift their entire planning and dispatch processes to the cloud. In doing so, they have handed over complete control of their systems to the IVU experts and trust us to help them in scheduling and deploying thousands of employees and several hundred trains every single day.

The aim of this type of outsourcing is usually to consolidate IT infrastructure and unite all technical and operational aspects into one place. The cost savings that can potentially be achieved are just one of many considerations. Above all, companies want to benefit from faster software updates and enhance the performance of their planning solution.

Seamless Transfer to the Cloud

The process for transferring systems is always very similar. Following an in-depth analysis of the individual system structure, IVU specialists in a certified data centre set up the IVU.cloud server and prepare the software for relocation. Based on the relevant requirements in each case, the engineers ensure that the overall system is optimally configured and that the required server hardware equipment is installed.

When moving to the cloud, the data of the old system is transferred to the new one. If an incident prevents a seamless transfer, the legacy system can continue operating as a backup. For practicality, the new server environment is normally commissioned overnight on a quiet weekend to ensure minimal operational impact. Optionally, for the shortest possible downtime when moving to the cloud, the previous system and the new system can be kept synchronized in the weeks before the scheduled transfer. This means that the databases in particular – which contain most of the technical data – no longer need to be moved and instead only need to be switched over. This considerably reduces the effort on the day of the move.

To best enable a smooth transfer of the secured connections from the individual sites to the new servers, IVU works closely with the relevant service providers in advance. Weeks and months before the transition, the new network connections are made available. Their functional operability is ensured by first using test systems. This means that users can continue to work with their system as usual directly after the switch.

Seamless Integration in the Overall System

The IT infrastructure for organising and implementing operations for railway companies is generally not a single, homogeneous system, but instead a network of different products and subsystems that frequently share data among each other. The integrated interfaces in IVU.rail also ensure error-free data exchange via the cloud. To do this, the planning, optimisation and dispatch modules synchronise themselves with multiple adjacent systems, sometimes as frequently as once every minute. Thanks to efficient protocols and a sufficiently high bandwidth of the connections used, the myriad network accesses do not impact overall system performance.

If any unexpected performance issues, performance fluctuations or even system failures occur, IVU.cloud customers can contact a 24-hour hotline for expert support in resolving issues as quickly as possible.

For deeper, more complex issues, the development team at IVU’s head office in Berlin are consulted. The staff there know the structure of the system better than anyone and can solve complex issues. To prevent problems from occurring in the first place, IVU administrators continuously monitor the entire system with special software that has been specifically designed for the IVU solution and can both identify and resolve potential risks to system stability in advance.

Scalable to Any Needs

One of the biggest systems that IVU currently operates for a customer comprises 600 computers with 4,000 gigabytes of RAM. The railway company manages the service, calculation and planning data of almost 20,000 employees on approximately 150 virtual machines. The total performance of the system has been dimensioned such that the CPU-intensive optimisation of duty schedules – a task performed when timetables are changed – can be managed without any problems.

Railway companies generally require only a fraction of the theoretically possible services, which is why the outstanding scalability of cloud solutions is especially useful. Depending on the current requirements of the company, the software-as-a-service concept can be finely tuned to the relevant needs. If the processing capacity reserved in the data centre is insufficient, additional capacity can be easily made available as required – for example, if complex optimisation measures are necessary or quotations need to be calculated.

The IVU.cloud temporarily integrates additional resources. As a result, railway companies can perform even the most complex computing operations in the background without other users noticing.

The cloud is also perfect for companies with less exacting requirements. In particular, small railway companies with just a few employees and exposed to significant cost pressure are grateful for the opportunity to offload technical management tasks to someone else. Thanks to flexible tariffs, they pay only for their actual usage duration. The minimal system requirements – a PC and stable Internet connection – make it logistically easier to switch to the cloud.

Conclusion

Outsourcing hardware and software is a great way of freeing up resources. Companies no longer have to worry about expensive management tasks, or maintaining and servicing complex IT systems and can instead focus on what really matters: their customers.

Railway companies benefit from the excellent scalability and reliable power reserves of cloud solutions. Especially when it comes to planning and dispatch requirements, the high level of flexibility and security are a major advantage over self-operated server systems. In the software-as-a-service model, they can also rely on the expertise of the manufacturer of their planning solution – after all, the manufacturer knows its product inside out and can prepare the optimum configuration for the relevant operational requirements.

More and more transport companies are discovering the benefits for themselves. IVU, too, has had many positive experiences with its IVU.cloud services, which have been in high demand from customers across the world since they were first introduced.

Authors:

Dr Manuel Scholz, Head of Platform Development, IVU Traffic Technologies
Nikolai Andree, Product Manager IVU.cloud, IVU Traffic Technologies