The Cloud: what’s in it for me?
Part 2 of our Introduction to the Cloud (see part 1 here).
Cloud computing is here to stay, at least for the duration, and with the internet getting faster, the Cloud is still getting bigger. To make the best decisions about what this means for your business, you need to understand what’s on offer and how it works. There are three main cloud service areas:
Instead of purchasing boxed software and licenses, you sign up for online access to it and pay a subscription based on usage or the number of users. This bit of the Cloud is making a big impact on small and medium-sized businesses – most services of this kind let you increase or decrease your package month by month, so they offer real flexibility when compared to buying extra licenses or upgrades.
Rather than making a capital investment in servers and network equipment, you can subscribe to a service and pay according to the amount of resources your network consumes. The scale and cost of this kind of Iaas services make it more useful for large enterprises, but many small business are tapping into Iaas through their website hosting arrangements.
This covers the operating systems, software, and anything else needed to run (for example) web, database or email services. Pricing models vary, but many are subscription-based. CRM software packages like Salesforce.com and SageCRM are good examples of platform-as-a-service, as is IP telephony (VOIP).
There are obvious advantages to a lot of this, but before deciding to migrate any of your business process to the Cloud, it’s a good idea to understand what you have at present, what you need, and what’s out there. You’ll want to assess potential pitfalls as well as potential advantages, before making a decision.
On the plus side
On the plus side, information that’s stored remotely on a massive server is much less vulnerable in, for example, a local crash. Cloud services can be accessed any time from any computer, so long as it is connected to the internet – And with many of them you download an app so you can work locally, offline. Lots of network technologies like Outlook Web Access and Terminal Server are already available like this; the Cloud is widening it out and putting it in reach of smaller enterprises and home users.
By working on a subscription model, cloud computing has the potential to lower capital costs – because you’re not investing in hardware – and to improve cashflow by being a predictable monthly outgoing, rather than involving expensive upgrades.
It’s also flexible. Most Cloud-based services operate on a pay-per-user-per-month basis; there is no lengthy contract to bind you something you no longer need. You can increase or upgrade services quickly and temporarily, so you can be completely responsive as your business expands or contracts. For small enterprises this can make project-based work more profitable, or even possible.
But on the other hand…
Cloud computing cannot work without the internet. If your internet connection fails, or if a Cloud-based provider goes down, you will be left with no access to files unless they’re also stored locally. You still have to back up, and have a contingency plan.
With the massive expansion of the web and its functions, new security holes open up all the time. Keeping users’ information safe is a massive priority for reputable providers, but it still pays to ask: how vulnerable is your data to being ‘mined’ or otherwise inappropriately accessed? How much data are cloud companies collecting, and how might that information be used?
Once you decide to stop a Cloud-based service, who actually owns and controls your data? Is it being stored in compliance with UK data protection laws? Can you get it back? How can you be certain that the service provider will destroy your data (after you’ve retrieved it, of course) once you’ve canceled the service? It’s important to read the small print.
In short, with the Cloud as with everything else, it’s important to do your homework before making any changes to your service provision. Some services may look good, but your business may not really need them. Think about how you work, what your actual problems are, and what’s working great just as it is. Weigh up the pros and cons of each service and decide what will work best for your business.
Migrating your functions to the Cloud is not all or nothing proposition. Some services may change so they only exist as cloud-based options, but for others there will be alternatives. Moving everything – becoming completely cloud-based – probably won’t be the most practical step, either strategically or economically. Many small businesses take advantage of Cloud computing selectively, for example, by moving anti-virus and backup to the Cloud, or by subscribing to a cloud software service instead of buying a boxed software upgrade.
If you find that some aspect or aspects of your business will work better in the Cloud, make it as strategic a change as any other change. Make sure you have a transition plan, ensure that everything is backed up and that you have full access to your information, and have a Plan B in case it turns out not to be what your business needs.