[Please note that the following article — while it has been updated from our newsletter archives — may not reflect the latest software interface and plot graphics, but the original methodology and analysis steps remain applicable.]
Over the last few years, many of our customers have struggled with the decision of the type of implementation they should follow for their reliability solutions. Quite often, there are conflicting requirements and needs, from both an engineering and an information technologies (IT) standpoint, which necessitate a compromise between functionality, usability, ease of initial deployment, long-term support, cost, etc. This article addresses some of the questions to consider when deciding which type of software or system is the best fit for each particular application and presents a brief introduction to how a terminal server approach might be applied for specific applications.
There are many factors to take into consideration when purchasing software for your specific reliability, quality and/or maintainability data analysis and reporting needs. The degree to which the tool provides desired functionality, the usability of the interface and documentation, the availability of knowledgeable support and training and the software vendor's reputation should of course be at the top of your list of factors to consider. The method of deploying the software (e.g., standalone or client-server software, web-based system, etc.) is another consideration. You, or your company’s IT department, may have an up-front preference for enterprise-wide systems that can be deployed via Web browser and this is indeed the best approach for some applications. However, in many cases, a standalone or client-server approach will provide better performance with less overhead. A terminal server approach can also be considered as a way to address the IT department's desire for a scalable, manageable solution while still satisfying the users’ demands for functionality, usability and performance.
Do You Need Enterprise Software?
The first question to consider is whether you need enterprise-wide software for your particular application. By “enterprise-wide,” we are referring to software that provides centralized data storage and allows multiple users to access the system simultaneously. This type of software is typically more expensive and more complex to implement. It requires adequate server hardware, experienced IT personnel to configure and support the server(s), appropriate licensing for the underlying database (e.g., ORACLE or SQL Server), a secure and reliable connection to the server for each user, ongoing database maintenance and backups, and so on.
An enterprise-wide system is likely to be appropriate if you are dealing with process-oriented analyses that require input and review by multiple people, such as FMEA or FRACAS. In these cases, the organization will benefit from centralized data storage and the ability for multiple users to log in to the system from various locations and query or update the shared information. ReliaSoft's Xfmea Enterprise and XFRACAS products are examples of enterprise-wide software designed to support the FMEA and FRACAS needs of the entire organization, while providing consistency, a feedback loop for corrective actions, a searchable "knowledge base" of known issues, etc.
Another powerful application for an enterprise-wide system would be an automated data analysis and presentation system, such as ReliaSoft's Dashboard. This type of system is designed to collect data from a variety of sources (e.g. shipments, warranty claims, failure analyses, etc.), automatically analyze the data and present the analysis results throughout the organization. This approach is appropriate for analyses that can be performed without input from an experienced analyst (such as line charts showing trends over time or bar charts of issues ranked by quantity) and usually requires custom development to establish the data flow, analysis and presentation mechanisms that are appropriate for an organization’s particular processes.
However, if you are working with individual statistical data analyses (such as fitting a distribution to life data or simulating the operation of a complex system over time), an enterprise-wide system is not required, even if you have many users across the enterprise. In this case, the analysis is typically (and appropriately) performed by one analyst at a time and usually requires the computing power and usability that a standalone software product such as ReliaSoft's Weibull++ or BlockSim can provide. Under this scenario, employing an enterprise-wide web-based system would be both prohibitive and unnecessary.
Web-based or Client-Server?
If you have decided that an enterprise-wide system is appropriate, the next question to consider is whether it should be web-based or client-server. With systems that are deployed via a Web browser, there is little or no software that needs to be installed or updated on each user's computer. This characteristic is understandably attractive to many IT departments! If a web-based system can deliver the desired functionality, usability and performance then it may be preferred over a client-server approach, which requires software to be installed and updated for each user.
The technology available for developing web-based systems has been improving and continues to improve all the time. However, for many types of tasks, users continue to expect a higher level of usability and performance than can currently be achieved in a web-based interface. In those cases, your organization will need to carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the relative convenience of the web-based system versus the superior performance and usability of the client-server option… or consider a terminal server approach, as described next.
Consider a Terminal Server Approach
If you have decided that your organization does not want to install a client application on each individual user's computer but you would prefer the usability and performance of a client-server solution, then you may consider some sort of terminal server implementation (such as Microsoft's Terminal Services® or Citrix®) as a viable alternative to a truly web-based system. With this approach, the application software will be installed on one or more server computers but the individual users will employ a "thin client" to remotely connect to the server and operate the software on the server, instead of on the user's own computer (depending on the implementation, this could be a Web browser or a small utility such as Microsoft's Remote Desktop®). With this type of implementation, the application software needs to be updated on the server computer(s) only but each individual user enjoys the full functionality, usability and performance of a Windows-based graphical user interface. There is some IT setup required, of course, but it is comparable to (or even less than) the effort required to host and support a web-based system.
As this article demonstrates, the answer to the question of whether enterprise-wide web-based software is right for you depends on the application. In general, you will get more functionality and better performance, with less overhead, when you perform individual statistical analyses in standalone applications. An enterprise-wide system will be appropriate for applications where centralized data storage is required and multiple users must cooperate on the data entry and analysis. Among enterprise-wide systems, a web-based interface may be preferred because of the minimal installation requirements for individual users. However, if a Web page cannot deliver the desired level of usability and performance, a client-server implementation (with or without terminal server) is also a viable option. In developing our suite of reliability software and systems, ReliaSoft has endeavored to provide the appropriate tool for each particular application. This includes standalone and client-server Windows-based software, which can be deployed via terminal services if desired, as well as truly web-based enterprise-wide systems.