Technical writing in the Cloud

One of the most popular developments in computing in recent years has been the emergence of cloud-based computing and Software as a Service (SaaS). Examples of cloud-based computing include Google’s GMail: Instead of an application being installed locally on a user’s computer, it runs on a remote server, accessed via the user’s Web browser.

So is technical writing likely to move to the Cloud? Let’s look at the different approaches.

Why would you want to write using a cloud-based application?

There are a number of reasons why a Technical Author might want to use a cloud-based application. The first reason is cost. Instead of purchasing an application, cloud-based applications are typically offered on a monthly fee basis. If you’re looking to move to a DITA authoring environment, this spreading of costs could prove an attractive alternative to the upfront costs associated with buying a DITA solution.

There are other reasons, why you might also consider moving to a cloud-based solution:

  • If you have staff, a technical writing partner (such as Cherryleaf) or contractors working remotely, cloud computing means you can quickly and easily add them into your authoring environment.
  • If you want to work in a collaborative authoring environment, cloud-based applications typically enable you to do that.
  • If you use a third party company (such as Cherryleaf), you have the opportunity, at a later date, to log into the system and make any minor updates (following updated releases of your product) yourself.

Check in/out

You don’t necessarily need to move to a cloud-based environment, if you want to have remote workers and/or collaborative authoring. The most popular authoring tools, such as RoboHelp, FrameMaker and Flare, use a check in/out model instead of a cloud-based approach. Writers can “check out” a topic from a project and work on it remotely. They can then “check in” the completed topic back into the project, via email or SharePoint.

Your authors will all need to have the Help Authoring Tool on their computers, and you cannot watch them as they write, but it’s worth considering.

SaaS

If you’re looking for a SaaS authoring tool, then there are a number to consider:

  • DITA-based authoring applications and services, such as Doczone, DITAweb and Stilo Migrate
  • Help Authoring Tools, such as HelpConsole and Author-it Live
  • Wiki-based technical authoring applications, such as Mindtouch Cloud and Atlassian OnDemand
  • Word processors, such as Google Docs

You’re usually unable to add any additional plugins, which you’d be able to do if the software was installed on your computers or servers.

You may also need to consider where your data is actually being stored. Data privacy rules differ in the USA and the European Union –  the USA’s Patriot Act, for example.

Your own private cloud (VPN)

Some organisations simply add remote workers to their existing network. The organisation has its own private cloud, a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Typically, it’s up to the IT department as to whether a remote user will be given access to a system. You may need to acquire licences, and you may need to wait for IT to set this all up for you.

An alternative approach is to create a private cloud for your own department. You can create a server in the Cloud, using Amazon’s EC2 service, or using alternatives from companies such as RackSpace or Microsoft (Azure). On this server, you could install for example, a customised version of the Authoring application (containing all the plugins and macros you require), and provide remote workers with a web address, user name and password for them to log in. With VPN server prices starting at $20/month, it’s an affordable option.

If you decide to do this “under the radar” (i.e. don’t tell the IT department you’re setting up your own VPN), you need to make sure you’re conforming to your organisation’s IT security policy. Otherwise, you could be in trouble.

Are you writing in the Cloud?

The reasons for using cloud-based applications seem to be as valid in the Technical Publications department as in other departments. So it’s likely we’ll see a growth in the uptake of this type of service.

  • Are you writing in the Cloud? How have you tackled this problem?
  • Is writing in the Cloud a good idea?

We welcome your comments.

Author-it 5 self-study training course launched today

We’ve added two self-study training courses in Author-it version 5 today – one for Author-it users and the other for Author-it Administrators and Users.

This year, we’ve also introduced a classroom courses in RoboHelp 7 and FrameMaker 8, and we’ve launched an updated version of our DITA training course.

We’ve another course in development and one at planning stage.

Let us know if there’s any other training courses relating to technical writing that we should consider.

Author-it 5.1 launched

From Author-it:

“This update resolves a number of known issues and has several new
features including:

Object Variants: A flexible way of creating and maintaining different
variations of a single object. Similar to versions, variants remain
linked to their primary (or parent) object, however unlike versions
you can have multiple variants active at any one time. You define the
criteria to control which variant is used in each adaptation of the
book. For example, variants can use criteria based on location
(country, state, or city), product version, supported platform, and
so on. You define the criteria that suits your content.

Author-it Quick Search: Quick Search provides the full set of
advanced search options. In addition, it saves each search result
while the window is open, enabling you to access the results at any
time without completing the search again. The window enables you to
navigate through your library, and provides options for working with
your library content.

Batch Import of File Objects via Drag and Drop:
A fantastic new feature enabling you to batch import images and
quickly create file objects by drag and drop. Simply select an image
file (or files) and drag and drop into the object list in the main
window.

For detailed information please see the Release Notes at:
http://www.author-it.com/kc/index.mv?33580″