To Host or Not to Host - Transportation Research Board Recap

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In early January, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) held its annual meeting in Washington, D.C. and attracted more than 12,000 transportation professionals from all over the world. Attendees ranged from academia, practitioners from state DOT’s, MPO’s and transit organizations, engineering firms, consulting firms and the Federal Highway Administration.

The TRB was established in 1920 as the National Advisory Board on Highway Research to provide a forum for exchanging ideas and research findings that pertained to highway technology. Over the years, it has evolved from a highway only focus to address other research initiatives in the realm of airports, freight, and hazardous materials transportation.

This year’s TRB theme focused on Transportation Innovation: Leading the Way in an Era of Rapid Change and had over 5,000 presentations in 800 different sessions and workshops. I have the privilege of serving on the ABJ60 Geographic Information Science and Applications Committee. This committee collaborates with other TRB committees to provide a track of salient topics that have a geospatial component that effects transportation practitioners. ABJ60 contributed to the execution of five workshops and seven events/sessions this year. The most noteworthy included:

  • Big Data Analytics in Transportation
  • Geospatial Innovations in Transportation
  • Information Technology Applications in Transportation
  • Advances in Geospatial Technology Applications in Transportation
  • Future View of Geospatial Technology Science and Applications

I was also presented the opportunity to give a presentation on the Future View of Geospatial Technology Science and Application session with four other presenters. In the philosophical vein of William Shakespeare our presentation was titled, “To Host or Not To Host – That is the Question!” A key component to this presentation was the viability of using the cloud to construct and distribute applications to solve typical transportation agencies problems. During the presentation, we explored: 

  • An overview of the cloud
  • Why an agency would host?
  • Why an agency would not host?
  • What is involved with hosting!
  • Is hosting the right decision?

In discussing why an agency would want to host applications in the cloud, several important points were addressed. In state government, there is a movement to consolidate all IT functions for various agencies under the state-run IT department. This limits the control a Department of Transportation (DOT) would have over the business applications they can deploy by subjecting them to state IT development standards. DOTs pre-existing relationships with external vendors would also be effected by the loss of control the DOT would experience. Another factor for DOTs to consider is the lack of control over the update of data for the applications. The state IT agency would probably have input on how often and when the data is pushed from the DOT. This could limit the effectiveness of the analysis being performed by the applications.

Another reason to consider cloud hosting is the ability to set realistic expectations for the application(s) that will be designed. Often when there is an outside vendor hosting the DOT, there may be other factors that would preclude the DOT from establishing all the objectives for how the application looks and performs. Government regulatory compliance is another factor that affects every DOT. DOTs must stay abreast of federal mandates that could impact its business processes. Outside vendors may not have the same level of commitment in adherence to these regulations.

Alternatively, some of the risks of not hosting in the cloud were addressed too. Security was at the top of the list. Data security and privacy concerns are of paramount importance. In addition, there could be web services or applications authored by outside agencies that do not conform to DOT security standards. Reliability is also a concern when using a hosting vendor. When an application is hosted outside of the DOT there are multiple customers competing for the hosting vendor’s resources. This can lead to concerns about response times and overload control. Service quality can also be a concern when hosting is done by an external vendor.  Many times agencies feel that Service Level Agreements (SLAs) are not adequate for production purposes.  Another reason for not hosting is the lack of internal knowledge of cloud-based architectures. Some DOTs have very limited expertise on cloud-based architectures, principles, and standards. Things like performance management for internally-hosted cloud environments are unchartered territory for many DOTs. There are also cultural reasons DOTs would not host. This seems trite but in some cases the resistance can be simply, “We’ve never done business like this before.” In addition, fear always exists that well-established procedures may be compromised. Another aspect is internal hosting not only effects the CIO but also the chief of acquisitions, the CFO and other directors within the DOT.

Deployment models for hosting were also analyzed. Does the application utilize the lift-and-shift or multi-tenancy approach? The lift-and-shift models moves application to the cloud almost exactly as it runs on-premises. This can be less expensive but also makes less efficient use of newer cloud computing resources. The multi-tenancy model consists of a single instance of software that runs on a server. This instance serves multiple tenants who have shared access, privileges, and development resources. In addition, maintenance costs for the application is shared between the tenants.

Cloud-based solutions are becoming a more prevalent reality in a transportation agency’s everyday existence.  A plethora of web services and applications are available in the cloud, and at the DOT’s disposal to help it develop targeted solutions for operation problems such as asset management, oversize/overweight routing, and emergency management. Some of the factors that have been discussed will have to come under consideration in helping a transportation agency to decide to host or not to host. In addition, budget considerations for hardware and infrastructure can influence an agency’s decision.

The topics of cloud and hosting are right in the mainstream of the TRB’s theme of Transportation Innovation: Leading the Way in an Era of Rapid Change. These are exciting opportunities for transportation agencies to build dynamic solutions to solve everyday business problems. 


Bruce Aquila
About Bruce Aquila

Bruce Aquila is a senior transportation consultant for Hexagon Safety & Infrastructure and has been with the company for 33 years. He currently works in the Transportation Business Development group where he is responsible for technical business development, consulting, industry conference presentations and product requirement collection. Aquila works exclusively with State DOTs, Metropolitan Planning Organizations, local governments, and transit agencies in the areas of linear referencing, network and data modelling, and surface transportation analysis applications.

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