Every once in a while, I review software for 4sysops that I find so useful personally that I become a customer if I wasn't already one. CloudShow by Binary Fortress is one of those products.
At the moment, I have CloudShow running on my office HDTV; here's what it looks like:
CloudShow is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) cloud application that makes it simple to deploy digital signage on practically any device in any environment. In today's post, I want to explain CloudShow's use case in more detail and show you precisely how the product works. Let's get down to business!
Understanding the CloudShow use case ^
Several years ago, I worked as the technology director of a private high school. One year, our goal was to display school announcements and other information on 12 HDTVs mounted throughout the campus.
It's embarrassing to say, but to accomplish this goal, we put a commodity PC behind every one of those monitors and (ugh) manually displayed PowerPoint slide content. Yes, this was as much of a logistical/administrative nightmare as you'd imagine. Let's count some headaches:
- Keeping each PC patched and in good working order
- Updating the PPT display content on every host
- Manually standardizing each digital sign's overall look, feel, and experience
In today's Internet of Things (IoT) ecosphere, just about any device that has a network interface card and a valid IP address can participate in centralized configuration management.
Nowadays, we expect to be able to install a small agent on our managed devices and control what they do remotely. CloudShow takes this modern paradigm and makes it easy enough for a completely non-technical audience to take control of their digital signage. Really—it's that easy!
CloudShow setup workflow ^
CloudShow is a SaaS application, so your first order of business is to create a CloudShow user account.
CloudShow setup follows this three-step procedure:
- Connect a compatible device and install the client. As of this writing in mid-August 2019, CloudShow makes its client software for the following operating systems:
- Windows 7, 8, and 10
- Amazon Fire
- Google Android
- Google Chrome OS
- Apple iOS
The CloudShell engineering team told me they plan to release a Linux client eventually but were unable to provide me with an ETA as of this writing.
- Pair the device. CloudShow uses a six-character pairing code to link your device to your CloudShow account and organization.
- Create your layout(s). As you'll see in a moment, CloudShow has a hosted app model with 60+ pre-made integrations. These integrations mean you don't have to understand anything about platform application programming interfaces (APIs) to define display panels for news, social media, or other third-party content.
Once you log into your CloudShow account, you can browse to your organization page as shown in the next figure. This is your "command and control" center for your managed devices.
In my lab environment, I installed the CloudShow Launcher client on one of my Windows 10 workstations; the agent runs in the notification area and, when brought to the foreground, displays the six-character pairing code.
In your CloudShow dashboard, click Pair New Device, then enter the six-digit verification code. Now, you've successfully onboarded the device.
You can create groups to organize your devices. This is particularly useful for hospitals, schools, and larger businesses where displays are aggregated on different floors, buildings, and even geographical areas.
Create and publish our first layout ^
From the CloudShow dashboard, select the device you want to configure. The following picture presents a composite view of what happens when you click each graphical element on the device. By the way, the device we're looking at is my Apple iPad Pro.
The overlay function is pretty cool—you can actually place a content frame in front of whatever is on the current display, sort of like the "picture in picture" functionality you see in most televisions. The overlay is great when you don't want to consume the device display's entire area for your content frame.
As I said, the app model gives you a wide variety of cool content choices that require no programming or API know-how; some of the options include:
- Analog clock
- BBC/CNN/Yahoo News
- Currency exchange rates
- Current weather
- Google Calendar/Docs/Photos/Slides
- Microsoft PowerPoint/Word content
- Adobe PDF
CloudShow gives you two custom app options as well: custom HTML/JS and custom URLs. These options allow you to send your own HTML/CSS source code or a URL to the content frame.
Each app integration has its own configuration panel with specific instructions. For instance, let me show you the Google Calendar Settings panel.
In the case of Google Calendar, you simply embed an iframe. This isn't a particularly high-tech solution, but it works well! By contrast, to use a PowerPoint slide show as your content source, you simply upload the PPTX file from your computer, Dropbox, Google Drive, or Microsoft OneDrive, wait for CloudDrive to process the file (which takes no more than 10 minutes in most circumstances), and set your slide transition time.
I also want to draw your attention to the Preset Layout button. You can display more than one content frame per device to take advantage of screen "real estate." And, as I already mentioned, there is the content frame overlay option as well. To illustrate, you can see in the next figure that I put a CloudShow content frame on top of my full-screen Google Calendar, which is not associated with CloudShow.
You can organize your layouts into templates to make them reusable across devices. If you upgrade your subscription to the Enterprise tier, you can schedule content layouts to cycle on each device on your schedule.
From your organization dashboard, click Manage Devices to perform batch operations on all your onboarded display devices. From here, you can deploy CloudShow client software updates, reload content frames, and view connection statuses. CloudShow gives you the option to receive email-based alerts, which can be handy if or when a managed device goes offline. Here's the UI:
The View Device Map gives you (literally) a global view of where your devices reside on our planet. Finally, CloudShow makes a basic REST API for administrators who need to programmatically interact with your devices.
Pricing and wrap-up ^
You can do productive work with CloudShow at the free pricing tier. However, the free tier is limited to one managed device, and you cannot make templates or schedule layout rotations. The Enterprise tier is priced per device; you can pay the subscription fee monthly, quarterly, or yearly.
In summary, I absolutely love CloudShow. I can see this software being a "no brainer" purchase for businesses with digital signage needs that don't have local staff with relevant IT and development experience. I submit that CloudShow is attractive for seasoned IT professionals, many of whom love to minimize otherwise tedious administrative overhead.