A proliferation in asset health sensors, instrumentation and automation means that mining companies are generating huge amounts of data on a daily basis. This is on top of the data precipitated by more mundane software that manages corporate email or scheduling. The cloud offers miners a way of offloading their data, reducing costs and freeing up valuable resources while maintaining access and security.
A defined cloud
The cloud is a term that “loosely refers to any resource or service made accessible by a service provider through the Internet, as opposed to being located in-house,” according to a report recently published by Illumiti, SungardAS and Cisco entitled Cloud ERP for Mining Companies. Rather than install software applications directly onto on-site hardware, cloud-based software is hosted in third-party data centres, which are essentially large facilities that house massive computer systems maintained by cloud providers, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google Compute Engine. Software providers rent space on the cloud and supply clients with on-demand access. Information generated or collected by the software is stored on the cloud, which has virtually unlimited space.
The cloud offers many benefits to miners including business continuity in the face of a failure, according to the Illumiti report. Because information is not hosted on an on-site server, it is easier to recover data if business is disrupted. And for Doug Bellin, the global senior manager of manufacturing at Cisco Systems, total cost of ownership is another attractive aspect of the cloud. “You don’t have to worry about how long it takes to spin out a server farm or start a data centre,” he said, which can eat up precious capital and resources. Furthermore, cloud-based services always provide the latest version of the software immediately to clients.
Get your head in the cloud!
Since the cloud relies on an Internet connection, many underground or remote mines are not yet capable of taking full advantage of all the cloud has to offer. But that is changing. Goldcorp’s Éléonore mine in Quebec is equipped with Wi-Fi, thanks to Cisco Systems’ Connected Mining solution. And while miners on the front line may not be able to fully embrace the cloud just yet, those in the front office have already started using it.
Enterprise resource planning (ERP) functions – like human resources, finance and project management – are migrating to the cloud. SAP, for example, offers a number of cloud applications for sales, HR, marketing and finance, among others.
To the right are the most popular cloud-based ERP functions that mining companies have already adopted, according to Cloud ERP for Mining Companies, which surveyed 35 North American mining executives.
Strata GeoData Services launched a crowd-consulting initiative in April, dubbed the Hive, in which founder Andy Randell employs teams of young geoscientists to assess earlystage exploration projects. But team members rarely, if ever, meet in person. Work is done remotely and they share information and maps via Google Drive, a free cloud-based storage service that automatically saves changes and can be accessed anywhere in the world on a laptop.
Cisco’s Connected Mining solution is a communications platform that establishes baseline connectivity throughout a mine site. With the platform, miners can receive real-time information on output, equipment, worker location and security. Because the architecture of the system enables the cloud, it can easily accommodate mining applications if and when a company decides to migrate to off-premises servers.
Challenges and concerns
The number one obstacle miners face when it comes to cloud adoption is establishing a baseline connectivity to enable the cloud, according to Bellin. Once connected, communication networks may be shoddy given the remote location of some mines. Other concerns miners have include those surrounding the integration of data from different systems hosted on the cloud, security of their data from cyber-attacks (read more on cybersecurity in our Q&A) and control over vendor contracts.
“Sky's the limit”
Some industries have been using cloud technology for the past couple of years. But slow uptake in the mining industry does not put a limit on its future capabilities, according to Bellin. “We are just starting to see new ways of interacting with the data,” he said. Providers of fleet management systems, for instance, are looking into leveraging the cloud to offload the enormous amount of information being processed by local servers on a daily basis. Modular Mining Systems is planning to soon release MineCare 3, a cloud-based SaaS maintenance management offering. And beyond that, Bellin said, “the sky’s the limit.”