The ASP Advantage

Thursday, August 18, 2005
By Ronnie Smith

What is ASP and why?

ASP stands for Application Service Provider and it is exactly that. An application that is monitored and maintained by professionals that can be accessed with secure log in from anywhere in the world and available to its users at a small monthly fee.

Why ASP?

There are many reasons, including accessibility, reliability, and other features that because of their complexity are only available through an ASP application. ASP’s are nothing new; we have been using them for years. Not many of us have our own private jet for travel. The cost of maintaining a jet is too high. We pay a small amount for a ticket and share the costs with all the other passengers. This is the ASP model, everyone pays a small monthly fee to maintain a system that is so powerful, that not one of us could afford to maintain it on our own.

How does it work?

The Beacon ASP model works by using a client, such as Dispatch Anywhere, that connects to Beacon's servers via secure internet connection. As a user enters data into the client, the data is sent to the servers and then processed there. This allows complex calculations to be performed on powerful servers instead of the user's computer; enabling Dispatch Anywhere to run on lesser powerful computers. The data is updated and sent back to any other clients connected to the company's database on Beacon's servers. This is done without any visible delay to the dispatchers or other users. One of the benefits of an ASP is that all you need is a computer and internet connection. There is no need for expensive servers or costly IT consultants to configure, maintain, and back up your system. This is all performed by Beacon professionals and is included in the monthly usage fee, no matter how many users you have.

What to consider.

Let' look at some of the things that you may want to consider when shopping for software and comparing an ASP to an enterprise solution.

Advantages of Beacon's Dispatch Anywhere ASP vs. Enterprise solution

1. Data mirrored between multiple drives and multiple servers. So if your server goes down you can run your business with no down time while waiting for your server to be repaired.

2. Professional IT personnel back-up your data everyday.

3. You can run more than one work station in your office without buying an expensive server and hiring an IT personnel to build and continually maintain your network.

4. Professional ITpersonnel monitor your servers 24/7.

5. Even if your computers are stolen, destroyed in a fire or die for some other reason. You will be able to download the software and continue to run from any computer with an Internet connection, such as your home office.

6. You can monitor or even run your business from anywhere in the world, including your home or night dispatch office?

7. Web-based programs like www.TowSpec.com and www.TowMap.com are completely integrated into Dispatch Anywhere ASP towing software.

8. New features to the towing software (as they are developed) are available to you in an instant at no additional charge?

9. Technical support is available 24/7 at no extra monthly or yearly charge as long as you are using the software?

10. Software add-ons, such as mapping, two-way paging and complete accounts receivables included in the initial purchase price of the software.

What about owning software?

Why would someone spend a large amount of money on an enterprise solution with a huge up front cost and many hidden costs. In some cases, a system that is obsolete before it is up and running in your office. The first thing the enterprise software companies are going to tell you is “YOU OWN IT!"

Why would you want to own it?

I talk to company owners all the time that are stuck with obsolete software that they own and can't change because they have too much money invested in it. There are so many hidden costs in enterprise solutions that they don’t tell you about when you put your money on the table, by the time you are up and running you are stuck in a money pit with no way out. With an ASP, if something better comes along and you are not happy with the service; you can pack up and move on without feeling like you left your wallet behind.

When looking for your software, shop wisely, do your homework and you will find what all of Beacon Software (www.beaconsoftco.com) customers have found. A trustworthy, dependable company with a reliable staff that handles all your software needs, so you can focus on what you do best, run your business.

Digital Dispatch – Is the Internet safe?

Thursday, August 11, 2005
The simple answer is no. Most of the computers today are vulnerable to some kind of hacker or virus attack. If you don’t believe me, just pickup any newspaper or listen to any news show, computer attacks happen everyday. Should you stop using the Internet? ABSOLUTELY NOT! With the proper precautions you can adequately secure your information. In fact, I read a statistic the other day that said more data is lost from computers being stolen than from data being accessed from the Internet.

Then why should you use a computer connected to the Internet? - To stay profitable. Many of your competitors already manage their businesses using a computer. Today, most of the motorclubs encourage service providers to use the Internet to receive calls. Tomorrow this may become a requirement. In fact, the Internet will soon be used by car dealers, trucking companies (http://www.wrecker.com/), car rental agencies, and insurance companies to send the majority of towing requests. Therefore, it is imperative that you protect your information from malicious Hackers.

Just like we use locks on our doors and windows to prevent intruders, we can lock down the information on our computer. However, just as it is difficult to absolutely prevent someone from entering your house, it is difficult to absolutely prevent someone (a hacker) from gaining access to your computer. That is why backups (your insurance) are so important. So, if you are attacked you can restore your information.

The same way banks protect your money and valuables in high security vaults, professional system administrators protect your data by preventing nearly all attacks from hackers, losses from fire, storms or theft with the proper hardware and software, but it is expensive. The average computer owner is not willing or not able to go to this expense. So my article is aimed at affordable solutions that will give you adequate protection against viruses and hackers.

Let’s start with a few definitions:

Hacker (or more correctly a Cracker):
Is a programmer who breaks into a computer system for the mere challenge of doing it. This may or may not be a malicious attack.

Viruses and Trojan Horses:
Viruses are computer programs that run against your wishes and without your knowledge. Some cause damage to your system, while other are just annoying. A Trojan Horse, a special kind of computer virus, is a malicious program that is disguised as a useful or fun program. It can be installed on your computer by email or other means. Someone can send you an email with an attachment claiming that it is a super duper screen saver or another appealing document. When you launch the attachment it appears as if nothing has happened, but in reality the Trojan has been installed and initialized on your system. It can be a remote control type of program, which will allow someone to control your computer, access your data or delete things. Usually the anti-virus vendors are on top of threats like this and issue a new virus definition that detects the Trojan before it can do any harm. That is why it is very important to keep your anti-virus software up-to-date.

Firewall:
A software program or hardware device that monitors Internet activity to detect and prevent unauthorized access to a computer system.

Are you at risk?
There are several FREE resources that will test the vulnerability of your computer system to outside attacks:
http://mcafeeasap.com/content/cybercop_asap
http://www.symantec.com/securitycheck
http://www.grc.com/
http://scan.sygatetech.com/

These programs will also identify other areas of concern and rate your exposure. They will also give instructions on minimizing your risks, like:

Disabling File and Printer sharing for Microsoft Networks

This is a Windows networking setting that should be disabled (off) unless you are behind a firewall. If you have this enabled (on) anyone can access the data on your computer hard drive. Look in the Microsoft Windows help file under “File and Printer Sharing for Microsoft Networks” for instructions on disabling it.

Using better passwords

Do not use proper names, since many of the password cracking programs assume that most people use the names of their spouse, kids, pets, etc. You should also mix upper and lower case letters with numbers. The more random you make the sequence the better. For example “rfghZyU23Iu” is hard to crack, but it is also hard to remember. Think of it as remembering a combination to a lock or a phone number. You can remember it with a little practice.

Consider purchasing a personal firewall (Free - $40)

A personal firewall program will limit your exposure to unwanted guests by monitoring all Internet activity. Microsoft Windows (Windows XP) has a personal firewall integrated into the operating system. Service providers are being told that the motorclub Digital Dispatch will not work behind a firewall. While this may be true for the web solutions from the motorclubs, it is not true for the solutions being provided by the towing software vendors. Furthermore, I believe with a little investigation and testing the motorclub browser solution should work behind a firewall too.

But is it safe to use Digital Dispatch? Although Digital Dispatch uses the Internet, it poses a relatively low security risk if properly implemented. This is because data is expected in a certain format, if does not receive data in that format it rejects the packet. However, your towing software vendor should also verify that the data packet came from one of the motorclubs and the connection should not remain open for more than a few seconds. These precautions will keep your risk exposure to a minimum.

Purchase an anti-virus program and keep it up-to-date

Most anti-virus programs have a “live update” feature that will check the company’s web site for virus updates and update the software when needed. You need to do this daily to make sure you are protected against the latest viruses.

You can order an anti-virus program online from http://www.mcafee.com/ or http://www.symantec.com/.

Give Credit Card information on a secure site only

You can tell you are on a secure site by looking for “locked padlock”. Netscape places the padlock in the lower left corner and Internet Explorer places the padlock in lower right corner of the program screen. Giving your credit card information over the Internet on a secure site is more secure than giving your card over the phone or even using you card in a store. This is because your credit card information is usually sent directly to the credit card company, bank, or processing company without human intervention.

Use online applications (ASPs)

The next generation of applications for towing management, accounting (Quickbooks for the Web), anti-virus, etc. will be online. This will give tremendous security advantages. First of all, Internet professionals that know how to thwart the efforts of hackers will maintain the sites. Your data will be safer on the web than in your own office. Secondly, if you were to get a virus or your computer is lost or stolen, all of your data would be safe on the server of your application service provider. Therefore, since nothing is stored on your local computer, you can simply go to another computer, input your password and you are back in business without experiencing any downtime or lost information.

Use secure databases to store your information

If you are using a towing management or accounting software, your data is stored in databases. Think of a database like a file cabinet. Some people lock their file cabinets and others do not. Databases are locked using user IDs and passwords. Just because your program requires you to login with a password, this does not mean the database is protected. Certain older less expensive database systems allow access to your information from outside the software that created it (using something like Microsoft Excel). However, expensive enterprise (professional client/server) database systems, such as SQL Server and Oracle maintain a very high level of security. That is to say, without the proper user ID and password, it is nearly impossible to view your information. This is not the case with older (distributed) databases, such as FoxPro and dBase. These packages merely store information and do not require authorization to view the information. They rely on your local network to provide the security.

The Internet generation of towing software (ASPs) will likely use professional client/server databases for information storage. This will bring a level of security to your information that has been needed for a long time.

To review, you should do the following to reduce your Internet risk:

1. Disable file and printer sharing.

2. Purchase personal firewall and anti-virus software.

3. Only use secure “pad locked” sites for credit card transactions.

4. Look to new online applications (ASPs) for towing management, accounting, etc. to provide the most secure, cost effective business environment.

Using computers, the Internet, and proper safeguards, your business information will be more secure and accessible. Your competitors will have a tough time catching up!
Todd Althouse is a Managing Partner of Beacon Software, LLC - an Internet Application development company.

This article was published in the November 2001 issue of American Towman Magazine.
For more information on Beacon Software products visit: http://www.beaconsoftco.com/Products/index.htm.

Towing Instructions

Tuesday, August 02, 2005
Beacon Software's www.towspec.com passed the 4200 user mark today. Towing instructions for more than 168,000 vehicles have been looked up by our users over the past few years. We average over 100 lookups a day. If you are not a user maybe you should be. Go to www.towspec.com and signup for FREE today.

Towing on the Net

Thursday, July 28, 2005
The Internet has grown significantly in the last several years. Almost all businesses today use email for everyday correspondence. It is being used in the towing industry by motorclubs and towers alike. The motorclubs dispatch calls and accept claims over the Internet. Many towers are using it to send pages to drivers, to track their truck locations, and in some cases they have even virtually eliminated the radio by using two-way pages or Mobile Data Terminals (MDTs). The next generation of towing software promises an even greater integration with the Internet.
This trend is likely to continue because of the dramatic cost savings that can be realized using the Internet. Motorclub calls now take less than 3 minutes from start to finish using Digital Dispatch. Whereas before, using the phone, a call could take 5-10 minutes. These few minutes add up to tremendous savings for both motorclubs and service providers.

You can even locate a service provider online using sites like http://www.wrecker.com/. The call can then be sent via email, fax, phone, and using digital dispatch like the motorclubs.
The next generation of towing software and management systems promises to be completely integrated with the Internet. You will no longer have to have an expensive, high-powered server networked with several fast workstations to run your towing software. Furthermore these networks require a true computer geek to keep them fine-tuned and running. Backups will be a thing of the past. Access from home is presently complex and slow. This too will no longer be a problem with the newer towing software packages. An Application Service Provider (ASP) will run these packages from a central location. These new solutions can be accessed from anywhere with your security code and an Internet connection (office, home, motel room, etc).
When it comes to Internet connections you have many affordable choices today. The table below lists the common types available:

Dial-up : 28.8 – 53kbs*, $0-25/month - AOL, AT&T, Earthlink, MSN, CoreComm, MCI,etc.

ISDN: 64kbs or 128kbs, $40-70/month - Earthlink, MSN, Telocity, AT&T, MCI, etc.

DSL (Digital Subscriber Line): 128 - 1544Kbs, $40-300/month - Earthlink, MSN, Telocity, AT&T, MCI, etc.

Cable: 56 - 1544kbs, $40-70/month - Time Warner, Adelphi, CableVision, etc

Satellite (2-way): 150 - 500kbs, $40-70/month - Starband, MSN, DishNetwork, DirectPC/DirectTV, etc.

Frame Relay: 56 - 1544kbs, $200-1500/month - Ameritech, GTE, MCI, AT&T, etc.

Fractional – Full T1: 128 - 1544kbs, $250-1500/month - Ameritech, GTE, MCI, AT&T, etc.

* 53kbs is the maximum allowed by the FCC. So even if you have a 56Kbs modem it cannot connect faster than 53kbs.

The connection speed you choose depends on your budget and what you need to do on the Internet. Internet (email) paging and Digital Dispatch do not need a very fast connection. A simple dial-up connection will provide enough speed, but it is not very reliable. You may want to choose one of the other connection types. IDSL, Cable, Satellite, Frame Relay and T1 all stay connected full time. This means they do not need to “dial out” to establish an Internet connection; they are always connected just like a workstation on your Local Area Network (LAN). After all, the Internet is nothing but a big LAN.

This is the premise behind the next generation of towing software. The application will be run from a secure server farm (several servers working together) and each towing company will just be a user on the network. Therefore you will only need a low cost computer, a security code and access to the Internet. The set-up time will be a matter of minutes instead of weeks. The average person can setup the computer and download the software instead of having to pay the high costs of flying in a technician. Most users will be able to follow the onscreen instructions and will not require weeks of training. However, training will probably still be required for the more advanced features. Addionally, there will be little or no maintenance costs. You will simply pay a monthly fee in addition to your regular Internet costs. These types of solutions should save the average company thousands dollars each year; not to mention the many headaches associated with running your own internal network (e.g. hard drive crashes, failed backups).

I spoke with a company owner last week about a major system crash. He lost an entire year’s worth of data and did not have a good backup. His backup failed due to the fact that his backup software was unable to backup his data while the towing software was running. Since they are running a 24/7 operation, they just didn’t have the time to shut down the towing software to run the backup. He thought it was backing up but his tapes were blank. Has this ever happened to you? This type of problem will not happen in the future because the ASP (Application Service Provider) handles technical issues, such as backups, behind the scenes.
Now let’s talk about some of the present ways people are using the Internet in their towing business.

Paging is probably the most common task being done through the Internet. Any company that has a full time connection to the Internet can utilize email paging. To send a page: you can go to your paging company’s web site or if your towing software is Internet enabled, you can send a page from within your program. Some software packages even offer two-way paging, but this requires you use expensive 2-way pagers for all your drivers. Email paging may be faster than standard dial-up paging, it all depends on your paging company. Many towing companies use email paging as a backup to their dial-up paging, because if a paging company’s dial-up sever goes down, it probably will not affect their email paging server – so you can send your pages using email. This too is dependant on your particular paging company. There are new technologies, such as Simple Network Paging Protocol (SNPP), that will enable your software to detect when a page has been received by your driver using standard low cost pagers.
This capability is already available if you have CDPD mobile data terminals. These systems use the Digital Cellular and the Global Positioning Systems (GPS) networks to provide two-way communication as well as truck location and speed. They utilize the Internet to send/receive data (messages) to/from your trucks. @road and Airlink Communications are two of the major players in this type of technology. For a monthly fee @road allows you to completely monitor and configure your MDT from their web site. They even give you an interactive online map to show your truck present and past truck locations. Airlink on the other hand does not charge you a monthly access fee, because the maps reside on your local server. You need to decide which solution works best for your needs.

Digital Dispatch is used by some motorclubs to send calls to service providers using the Internet. In the future you will even be able to submit your invoices to the motorclubs using this technology. This is because many of the motorclubs and towing software vendors have been working together to establish a standard protocol for sending calls and submitting invoices. Presently, a couple of the software vendors have the ability to directly receive calls from GE, which means the call appears on your dispatch screen. The other software vendors and motorclubs are working on similar solutions. The Internet solution from the other motorclubs requires you keep your browser pointed to their web site. When a call comes in you need to print it and then type it into your towing management software.

Several of the motorclubs also offer the service providers a way to submit their invoices online from their website. However, Digital Dispatch promises a much easier and automated solution in the future.

The Internet offers a benefit for every size towing company by using one or more of the following technologies: Digital Dispatch, paging, GPS/MDT, or submitting invoices to motorclubs. The next generation (ASP) towing management systems promises to deliver solutions that are much easier to use, more integrated with the Internet and utilize all of the present technologies as well as a few new technologies, such as Instant Messaging and Internet enabled cell phones.

I neglected to answer an important question that is probably on your minds – Is it safe? They simple answer is, Yes. In fact it safer than your telephone, since much of the data sent is encrypted. I will save this topic as well as remote access to your software using Microsoft’s Terminal Services for a future article on Internet technologies.

Todd Althouse is a Managing Partner of Beacon Software, LLC - an Internet Application development company.

This article was published in the September 2001 issue of American Towman Magazine.
For more information on Beacon Software products visit: http://www.beaconsoftco.com/Products/index.htm.

RoadSide Assistance Software

Monday, July 25, 2005
Beacon Software’s Dispatch Anywhere Fleet Management Software is the ideal system for managing the modern professional roadside assistance or lockout service company. The days of using pencil and paper for these industries is a thing of the past. Enterprise fleet management software is on the way out. The new trend is ASP fleet management software and it’s taking off throughout the towing, lockout and roadside service industries.
The advantages of Beacon’s ASP Dispatch Anywhere fleet management software is that it relieve road service companies from the burden and expense of learning and maintaining a computer network. When using Beacon’s Dispatch Anywhere fleet management system all you need is an Internet connection and a PC to run even the most complex road service operation from anywhere in the world.
Another advantage of Dispatch Anywhere is that it allows the user to customize the call taking and dispatching screens to fit the road service industry. This allows the software to adapt to road service industry instead of the road service industry adapting to the software.
You can receive calls over the phone like traditional dispatching software, but Beacon’s Dispatch Anywhere also adds the ability to electronically receive calls through the Internet (digital dispatch) from a motor club, regular account customer or from your road service company’s web site. This is done through a small application that is part of the full road service management software called TowMagic. TowMagic receives the call from your motor club or customer and inserts it into Dispatch Anywhere’s dispatch screen. This is all done without the call taker needing to type in any information.
Dispatching road service vehicles is done quickly with Dispatch Anywhere fleet management software, relieving stress on office personnel and eliminating drivers’ standby time while waiting for dispatchers to dictate calls and directions over the radio. The two-way paging with its auto finishing feature keeps your road service vehicles constantly moving, allowing for more calls to be completed by each service vehicle in a single shift.
Problems that occur in every day road service operations, such as finding and verifying addresses or quoting mileage prices are solved with Dispatch Anywhere. The included mapping system TowMap (www.towmap.com) verifies addresses and calculates en Route mileage, then pulls the prices for these services from that customers pricing template and ensuring the right price every time.
Beacon Software’s fleet management software (Dispatch Anywhere) has exclusive features, such as TowSpec, that provide road service instructions for all light cars and trucks.
Driver checkout is fast and easy with the Dispatch Anywhere fleet management software. Simply select a driver and date range and the software gives all service calls for that driver’s shift. It even automatically calculates a driver’s commissions no matter how unique your commission scenario.
Dispatch Anywhere has a complete Accounts Receivable module built right in. There is no need to export every call to Quickbooks or another accounting system to do your billing. The fleet management software keeps track of everything for you. It even has the ability to alert a call taker if a particular customer is over their credit limit. This is very important so you can stop extending credit to “deadbeats” Dispatch Anywhere can even fax/email an invoice or statement by simply right-clicking on a customer’s account./call.
The robust and customizable reporting included in the Dispatch Anywhere fleet management software allows the professional service company to fine tune procedures for efficiency and profitability with a wide variety of dispatch, accounting and performance reports
We have only mentioned a few of the many, many features included in the most comprehensive fleet management software ever created.
For more information on Beacon products visit: http://www.beaconsoftco.com/products/.

Towing Software

Friday, July 22, 2005
Beacon Software’s Dispatch Anywhere is the most advanced and comprehensive towing software ever developed. It is the ideal towing software for managing the modern professional towing company. It also is the only true ASP towing management software on the market today, which gives the performance of a local enterprise towing software, but the reliability and accessibility of an ASP.
No longer does the professional tow operator need to have expensive networks and pay professional administrators to maintain their local towing management system. With Beacon Software’s Dispatch Anywhere towing software, a wrecker operator needs only a PC and Internet connection to access his towing software from anywhere in the world.
Dispatch Anywhere is towing management software or towing dispatch software that covers the full spectrum from call taking through dispatch to accounts receivables.
Call taking is fast and easy with this towing software. It all starts with the incoming call, which can come from 2 sources: The first is from a person calling the towing company on the phone. In this case, the call taker simply types the information directly into the call taking screen. This is done quickly and easily because of Dispatch Anywhere’s extensive use of automation. There is actually very little typing necessary. The towing software even insures that ALL the required information for a particular is given before a call can be saved.
The second method of receiving calls is through electronic (digital) dispatch from a road club, regular account customer or from your towing company’s web site. This is done through a small application that is part of the full tow management software called TowMagic. TowMagic receives the call from your motor club or customer and inserts it into the Dispatch Anywhere tow management system. This is all done without the call taker needing to type in any information.
Dispatch Anywhere is fleet management software designed to keep your tow trucks moving, so your drivers are not standing by waiting for the radio to clear to get the next call. After the dispatcher assigns the call to the wrecker operator, the software takes over and does the rest automatically. The driver time stamps, sends information back, such as vin numbers and ticket numbers to the towing management software and finishes his tow calls remotely from a two way paging device.
Problems that occur in every day towing operations, such as finding and verifying addresses or quoting mileage prices are solved with Dispatch Anywhere towing software. The included mapping system TowMap (http://www.towmap.com/) verifies addresses and calculates unloaded and loaded miles then pulls the prices for these services from that customers pricing template insuring the right price every time.
Beacon Software’s professional towing management software (Dispatch Anywhere) has exclusive features, such as TowSpec, that provide towing instructions for all light cars and trucks.
Tow truck driver checkout is fast and easy with the Dispatch Anywhere towing management software. Simply select a driver and date range and the towing software gives all calls for that driver’s shift. It even automatically calculates a driver’s commissions no matter how unique your commission scenario.
Dispatch Anywhere has complete Accounts Receivable module built right in. There is no need to export every call to Quickbooks or another accounting system to do your billing. The towing software keeps track of everything for you. It even has the ability to alert a call taker if a particular customer is over their credit limit. This is very important so you can stop extending credit to “deadbeats” Dispatch Anywhere can even fax/email an invoice or statement by simply right-clicking on a customer’s account./call.
The robust and customizable reporting included in the Dispatch Anywhere fleet management software allows the professional towing companies to fine tune procedures for efficiency and profitability with a wide variety of dispatch, accounting and performance reports.
We have only mentioned a few of the many, many features included in the most comprehensive towing software every created.
For more information on Beacon products visit: http://www.beaconsoftco.com/Products/index.htm.

Denver company adds USAC electronic dispatching

Wednesday, July 06, 2005
A Denver company adds USAC electronic dispatch using Beacon's TowMagic product (www.towmagic.com). They hope to reduce the number of calls taken by hand and therefore eliminate keying errors. Beacon Software (www.beaconsoftco.com) currently has over 100 towing and roadside assistance companies utilizing TowMagic to receive electronic dispatches from USAC.

Towing and Roadside service industries' premier information source

Welcome to the Towing and Roadside service industries' premier information source. Where you will find information on Dispatching Software, Mapping, GPS, Towing Instructions, Motor Club Electronic (Digital) Dispatching, Mobile devices, paging, and other technology news from throughout the Towing and Roadside service industry.