Trucks and Infrastructure
When trucks and infrastructure are mentioned in the same sentence, the discussion is usually about the state of our nation’s highways and bridges. But for GeoSpace Labs, their infrastructure challenges were strictly technology-related—fueled by a sharp growth rate and high processing needs.
The Colorado-based company provides fleet safety tracking technology for the trucking industry, including electronic logging of hours of service. According to a 2015 federal law, the country’s 3.5 million truck drivers all have to transition from paper logs to electronic logs of hours of service (HOS) by the end of this year.
“The federal regulations say you can’t drive three days straight on coffee; you’ve got to take breaks, you have to sleep,” says GeoSpace Labs President David Lady, who co-founded the company with CTO Mark Rupert. “I equate our product to how airplanes have black boxes on them so in case something happens, they can see what led to it. Basically that’s what these semi truck owners are going to have to buy.”
Scaling Full Fleet Management System
Geowiz PRO, the company’s core product, provides electronic logging as well as a full fleet management system. It consists of a mobile app and hardware that stays inside the truck and “talks the binary language of trucks,” says Lady.
All of the data—such as the driver’s hours, the speed of the truck, routing, and arrival and departure times—needs to be visible to both the drivers and the fleet managers. “Fleets have to be able to move down to the individual driver and move up to aggregate the data and look across fleets, look across companies,” he adds. “We apply these fairly complex federal rules in real time, and also apply that over the geospatial overlay of the world. All that takes place on the server in the cloud.”
With the federal deadline looming, “we’re taking on hundreds and hundreds of people a week,” says Lady. And that volume has strained their servers. “We just couldn’t scale. We’d think we’d be good when we had 3,000 [users], and then when we hit 5,500, all of a sudden the servers are slowing down. Because we’re processing in real time, as soon as the queue backs up, when you hit the top, it just spirals and you have this huge backlog and everything’s down.”
That, of course, was bad for business. “Our customers were very unhappy because the systems went down, it’s slow,” Lady says. “We also have to process in real time, so if we can’t process quick enough to know when someone has arrived somewhere, then their arrival time isn’t right. So we were having all kinds of problems. We didn’t look as good as we thought we were because we were having infrastructure problems.”
The Search of the Perfect Infrastructure
The company kept outgrowing its infrastructure, and had to change vendors 6 or 7 times. “It was horrible,” says Lady. “We started using a vendor that has a node-based cloud server, so we could add resources to it. And we maxed four of those out and it still wasn’t handling our processing.”
At that point, “I was a little afraid we were out of options,” Lady adds. “We were considering renting space in a data center and buying servers ourselves. Amazon Web Services looked like they can certainly provide the horsepower we need, but the cost model doesn’t work for us. We’re not a startup, but the industry is still emerging. And we were just so far above all of the GoDaddy-level vendors. So I thought we were kind of in trouble.”
Then, one of their vendors suggested bare metal servers as a solution, and while shopping around, Lady found Packet. “I almost couldn’t believe it,” says Lady. “It was just the right price, mix of features, and functionality and cost. We experimented on it for about a week and went live that weekend.”
I almost couldn’t believe it, it was just the right price, mix of features, and functionality and cost. We experimented on Packet for about a week and went live that weekend.
Compared to other vendors’ products, Packet’s offerings seemed ideally suited for GeoSpace Labs’ needs. “Everyone else seemed oriented towards uploading pictures and shopping carts and stuff, and that’s just not what we’re about,” says Lady. “Our system is very processing-heavy, so we need the CPU cores. Packet’s boxes provide very CPU-core-heavy configurations. And we don’t need to pay for a lot of the other stuff. I don’t need a lot of bandwidth. I don’t need a lot of disc. But I need the CPU. The configuration we went on has 48 CPU cores, so it could distribute the load with all the processing on one box. I had eight VPS servers that I had to move over to that one because we had to keep pulling it apart, pulling it apart, pulling it apart so we could get all our processing done.”
The impact was immediate. “Well first off, I’m now getting six hours of sleep instead of two,” Lady says with a laugh. “I’m not having to wake up in the middle of the night to see if the servers are still running. I don’t even worry about the infrastructure now. I’m back to running the business. Before, all I did was move servers, fret, pull things apart and spend all my time trying to keep it running.”
The response they’ve gotten from customers has been gratifying. “The website pages used to take 40 seconds or a minute to load, which doesn’t sound like much but it’s frustrating when you’re sitting in front of it,” says Lady. “Our customers were very grumpy because if we’re slow then they can’t do their job. Now it takes 2 to 3 seconds to load, and they’re not grumpy.”
Worse, the delays sometimes meant lost revenue. “In this industry there’s something called detention,” Lady explains. “If I’m delivering to you and you’re paying me to deliver, I get to say, ‘If you keep my guy longer than two hours then I’ve got to bill you an hourly rate.’ So it’s on you to unload my truck within some amount of time. We provide those reports, but they weren’t working because we were too slow. That’s working now. So they’re able to bill and make money.”
In just a matter of months, the added processing power the company got from moving to Packet has enabled it to introduce several new features, including translation into six different languages in real time. The app also now allows drivers to use the camera on their iPhones or Android devices as a dashcam that sends wide feeds from the front of the truck to the fleet’s back office in real time. The data from that feed is integrated with the hours of service tracking.
Plus, “We have a ton of automation that we were able to put in, and logic, so the drivers don’t have to constantly open the thing up and fiddle with it,” says Lady. For instance, “when they arrive somewhere, we can calculate that automatically by processing the GPS over a locations overlay, and we can upload all their trip reporting for them. We couldn’t do any of that on the old servers.”
New features aside, the company is currently putting all its energy into getting thousands of truck drivers onto the system by the December deadline. “We have to get all those guys through and on and up,” says Lady. “What we need is the infrastructure to be rock solid, so that we can do what we do on the front end.”
And having Packet providing that infrastructure has given Lady peace of mind. “We’re trying to deliver a product to a lot of people, and we basically couldn’t get out of our own way,” he says. “We felt like we weren’t that good because we couldn’t get the processing power. We kept outgrowing it. And now we can focus on delivering the functionality that they need and the hardware. Now it works like it’s supposed to—basically because we found Packet.”