• Ian - Epix

Features for a Lockdown

This is a longer read than normal. We have received a lot of questions relating to COVID-19 over the last few days. A number of contractors have asked for different things to help them out, and we thought it would be worth updating everyone at once.

Cloud based back office

The back office system you are using is fully hosted and accessible from anywhere. If you or any of your staff need to work from home then the system can easily be accessed remotely - as long as they remember the URL for the browser, and their login credentials. Just point any browser at your system url. If you forget your passwords then we can reset/resend them to each user's registered email address, if you haven't set the user emails then we can't trigger them to be sent to you.

Action: confirm that all your users know how to access the system from home; test accessing; update all the users in the system with their email addresses

Mobile application

Most contractors use the mobile application so engineers can start their day from home. If you are still asking the engineers to come into the depot every morning to get jobs, then consider how you might allocate work differently so everyone has enough jobs on their phone for the next day without coming into the depot. If you can make sure everyone has a whole day then even if for some reason your office is closed down then all the engineers can at least have a chance of working through the day. If you are one of the few contractors still using just paper systems then maybe now is the time to consider switching some key engineers onto the mobile app.

Action: make sure engineers have enough work so they can carry on working if your office is locked down

Additional licences

If everyone is working from home then you may need more licences temporarily. Our monthly licensing always flexes up and down with your requirements, and only takes a few moments for us to add more capacity for you. If you need more licences, even if you are on our annual support plan, then we can add monthly licences whenever you need them, and remove them when you don't. We simply count how many users you had active in the month, and then bill this monthly - if you pay for licences as upfront+annual then you'll need to confirm the price.

Action: ask us to add temporary licences if you need them; ask for a monthly temporary price if you don't already have one

Client access licences

Your clients might not be able to access their own systems from home quite as easily as you can, so this might be the ideal opportunity to give them some (limited!) access to view their jobs in your system. We can create client users with very little notice so they can see what you are happy with them seeing!

Action: ask us to create temporary client users if you need them - £30 pcm per limited client portal user

Asset/Site warning

The system includes the facility to flag sites and assets with warnings. This is typically used for things like "attend in pairs", or "vulnerable tenant" etc. This warning is highlighted whenever you manually raise jobs, allocate work, and can be made visible on the engineers' phones. Some clients are now issuing specific warning about Covid-19 isolated properties - you can either add this into your existing allocation rules or create new rules to handle this. When everything quietens down we can always remove these warnings.

Action: ask us to help you handle new allocation warnings if you need them

Pre-visit risk assessments

The mobile application can be configured to present the engineers with pre-visit risk assessments. Depending on the answers to the questions we can prevent the engineer recording any further work and force them to pause the job (obviously we can't physically stop them doing the work, but we can force the mobile app to abort the visit). This is in addition to either the pre-visit Health & Safety check screen, or the site warnings screens. It is a little more involved for us to get these set up in the system and will need a new build to be (automatically!) sent out to the engineers, but we can set it all up remotely if you want to highlight any special risk assessments the engineers need to be completing during the next 10 - 14 weeks. We just need a little warning if you want this, and can't turn it around quite as quickly as the other items.

Action: send us the list of questions you need and ask us to update the mobile app with pre-visit risk assessments

Start of day checks

All versions of the mobile application include the ability to record start of day checks - this is normally just for vehicle checks, and to make sure everyone has the correct PPE. Just like the pre-visit risk assessments, we can trigger the mobile app to ask any special questions you need them to answer each day. Something like "do you have a cough?"! We can't stop them progressing their day, but we can at least use this to track how the engineers are feeling, and report on it in the back office system. With sensibly worded questions you can probably get sensible behaviour from the engineers. Depending on the engineers!

Action: send us the list of start of day questions and ask us to update the mobile app with start of day checks

Recording non-productive engineer time

All versions of the mobile application include the ability to record non-productive time, or time spent not on jobs. From the main menu on their phones the engineers should be able to select their other activities. If you have a need to add anything special into this list then we can add them remotely to send out to all engineers - maybe so they can record "self isolating" or "definitely got Covid-19" if you want to track the time lost, or have visibility of who is doing even when they aren't working.

Action: send us the list of non-job activities you want the engineers to be able to select.

Finally, here's some things we are doing to try to keep your systems running effectively over the next few months, most of which we do all the time.

Home working - part i.

All our staff take their encrypted laptops home each night, and have fully remote access to our office over VPN. This allows us all to continue working even if we are self-isolating or if the office building goes into lock-down. Routing traffic through the office allows our key team members to access through to our hosted servers, with additional methods to access the servers securely if we completely lose access to the office. We all routinely take it in turns to work from home normally, so we know that we can provide support and have tested the systems we need.

Multi-site servers

Our servers are spread across 3 UK datacentres. Two of these are in Manchester, with the third one in Leeds. We can easily move systems between locations as needed, so in the incredibly unlikely event that the physical buildings are locked down we will be able to continue running your systems by switching them to alternative locations.

Home working - part ii.

Starting from tonight, we are more pro-actively encouraging home working for key members of the team. Both Tim and Ruth will be taking their office VOIP phones home with them and working from home as much as possible. We will also be avoiding public transport - which is quite easy because Ian, Mike, and Chris all cycle in every day already!

Backups and business continuity

One of the big reasons we don't host our systems on a cloud platform like the Amazon Cloud or Microsoft Azure is that we were driven by a desire to make the DATA in our solutions more resilient to failure than off-the-shelf cloud can provide. "The Cloud" is naturally fabulously flexible and resilient to hardware failures of individual nodes, but the two big problems with cloud platforms are that the data is completely out of your reach, and you are reliant on the commercial relationship with these massive international companies to protect the data. In the event of a data failure or data breach, which we have seen from both platforms over the years, we expected that we (and ultimately your data) would be the bottom of their list of things to worry about. (See this example where Microsoft simply considered a five minute total data loss to be acceptable and covered by their T&Cs) . We thought that once your data is committed to the databases then it should be considered safe, and persist even through disaster. However, the concept of cloud is more than about where the data is, and often relates to how flexibly you can provision services. Our platform is designed to have almost zero configuration of new nodes, and allow small configuration changes to control which systems are hosted on which physical nodes. New nodes can be added to our cluster to include *any* physical servers, in any data centre, and even on virtual hosting platforms. The physical servers are already augmented by a number of virtual hosts for testing resilience. Our own cluster of dedicated servers is not limited by physical location or network topology, but simply by performance and reliability.

Being "in the cloud" means we have simplified the configuration and support of our cluster. To make sure that your data is always reliable and robustly stored we provide four levels of protection:

  • Mirrored: all data is mirrored locally onto multiple disk drives within each physical host server.

  • Replicated: all data is replicated in real-time to a second server (which is also mirrored). This means all transactions *MUST* be securely written to 4 separate drives before we notify the users of success, or begin the process of removing the sync'd data from engineer's phones. This is particularly important when considering the impact of a failure on the data gathered from the mobile app - whilst it might be irritating to have to re-process 5 minutes of back office invoices, it is impossible to re-capture resident signatures or pre-visit photos, which is why we are so careful about making sure the data is safe once we have it.

  • Backed up: we perform a nightly backup and restore of all data. Under normal circumstances we primarily use this data for telephone support and testing, but this is also copied to an encrypted incremental backup server in our office for use in disaster recovery. In the event of catastrophic failure of the whole internet we have a secure copy of your data that can be quickly restored to stand-alone hardware if needed.

  • Distributed: our customers are spread across three commercial data-centres in the UK, with easy swithing between locations

  • The "cloud magic" then means we can re-deploy or re-replicate any of this data to new nodes as quickly as we can provision hardware from new suppliers OR spin up virtual machines anywhere on the internet.

If you have any questions, or can think of something that you think we could be doing to support you better until we know how Covid-19 is going to pan out then please don't hesitate to get in touch.

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