It’s been one of the biggest changes to the way we do business in the past ten years – but where is cloud technology taking us?
It wasn’t all that long ago that the term ‘cloud computing’ was coined – indeed, it’s still a bit of a mystery to a lot of people in the small business sector. But for those in the know, and those who have taken advantage of everything that the cloud has to offer, it’s been an absolute game-changer in the way that Australian small businesses are being run.
But what, precisely, is ‘the cloud’… and how can it help your small business to operate? Those questions are probably best answered by taking a look at where the cloud has come from, and where it’s likely to take us all.
While the terms ‘cloud computing’ and ‘cloud technology’ are still relatively new – and, contrary to popular wisdom – cloud computing has been around in one form or another for a number of years.
It all began when remote networking became technologically feasible – the idea of networking computers that were geographically distant was one that was of great interest to a number of people in the industry. But it was a research and development team called the US Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) that delivered the first working example of an idea for remote networking that was first posited in 1967.
That network was called ARPANET – and it went on to become what we more commonly refer to as The Internet. In a nutshell, ARPANET was a very early example of what’s called a ‘packet switching network’, and the first to utilise the TCP/IP protocol suite that formed the basis of the internet.
Around the same time, it became possible for computers to operate as Virtual Machines – and that virtualisation opened the door for servers, accessible via ARPANET, to run many distinct computing environments within the one physical computer.
Fast forward to the early 1990s, and long-distance networks were becoming the established and accepted norm for computing. However, the relationship between the computer server and end user was much more static than what we have today. Yes, information could be retrieved by the end-user, provided they had the correct software and access details on their computer – but it was all done via point-to-point data connections. If another user was added to the existing system, it required a dedicated physical connection to be established. It worked – but it wasn’t particularly efficient, or cost-effective.
And then in 1999, a company launched a product that would change the way businesses saw networks forever. That software package was called Salesforce, and it began a revolution.
As data speed capacities grew, the drain on the current infrastructure grew – and the demand for more data, for more people, began to take its toll. The internet was changing the computing landscape faster than the technology platform it was built on could keep up.
1999 was also the year that a cheeky little start-up emerged, and promptly took over the world. It was called Google – and from humble beginnings as a search engine, it rapidly grew until it became a genuine force to be reckoned with, and became a huge part of the cloud itself a few years later.
As more and more large enterprises started to understand the usefulness of the internet, developers began to figure out ways to harness the inherent power in the such a widely distributed network – and, for a time, big business settled on what was known as an SaaS approach; which was network-based subscriptions to applications – much like Salesforce.
But recently, the backbone of the internet began to groan under the pressure, and bigger, faster, networks were built to deal with the quantity of data moving around the world. With better networks, and vast amounts of data storage suddenly becoming much more affordable in bulk, the idea of having servers based virtually anywhere, with anytime access to IT resources delivered dynamically as a service became a reality – and ‘the cloud’, as we know it, was born.
Now that the history lesson is over, you may well be asking yourself ‘how can this cloud be of any use to me’? – and the answers to that question could surprise you.
One of the main benefits of utilising cloud services and applications is that they offer anywhere, anytime collaboration. Put simply, it doesn’t matter where your individual workers are – they can still securely access all of the information and assets they need to do their jobs, without the need for them to log in via a Local Area Network.
Additionally, cloud services offer some pretty nifty features, such as version control for documents, which can ensure that your workers are only ever going to see the most up-to-date version of any documents that they are collaborating on, negating the need for time-consuming double-checking that they’re working on the right document at the right time.
In terms of cost savings, using cloud services for your business will help you to free up what would ordinarily be capital expenses, which you can then use for operating expenses, instead. Rather than purchasing a server, software to run it, and having an IT technician on-call 24 hours a day in case something goes wrong, small businesses have the option of paying a small subscription fee to their cloud services provider, and never have to worry about their server crashing ever again.
Another area in which major cost savings can be achieved is simply in data storage alone. If your company requires major amounts of data to be kept securely, the costs involved there can stack up pretty quickly.
Next benefit is that it frees up how documentation can be accessed by individual members of your team. Most cloud services run virtually independent of the type of device being used to access them. Take something like Dropbox, for example – it has enough flexibility built into its server-side setup, that documentation and files can be accessed by pretty much any device you can think of which is capable of connecting to the internet – from anywhere in the world.
So if you have a spreadsheet that you’ve put together on your HP laptop, and you need someone on the other side of the world to collaborate on it with you using an Apple iPad, it’s entirely do-able.
Lastly, and arguably the most important, lies in the idea of business continuity. We’ve all had times when an IT glitch has caused a major delay in our working day – and when data is lost due to a hard-drive crash, unless you have an instant, live back-up running, your business will lose even more time and money trying to get things back up and running.
Cloud storage services keep the data in a series of multiple redundancies – your information is kept, safe and sound, on a number of different sites, and is updated in real time. Which means if the unthinkable happens, and your service provider’s storage crashes, you probably won’t even notice that it’s happened – because your data will simply be served up to you from a different server, somewhere else in the world.
The future is looking very bright for small business and cloud services working together. Indeed, some experts are predicting that by 2020, more than 75 per cent of all small businesses in Australia will have made the move to an entirely cloud-based platform for operating their organisations.
And, with the speed that the online world is developing new and exciting ways for small business to embrace technology, it won’t be long before virtually every business tool your computer, tablet or phone is asked to handle, will be fully online and just a touch of a button away.
The big question for small business remains: which solution will work best for me?
The answer to that lies with a few simple steps, which can help you to clarify your needs, and choose the right option for your business.
First, you’ll need to understand precisely what the cloud is, and how it can work for your business – something that we hope we’ve helped you to do while you’ve been reading this story. If it’s still not clear, there are a huge number of online resources that spell it all out in much greater detail than we can go into here on the pages of our magazine.
The next step is to proceed with a fair degree of caution. It might be very tempting to leap into the new technology head-first, but that comes with a good chunk of risk associated with it. The experts suggest that moving your business into the cloud should be done in stages, with enough time elapsing between each major shift to allow you to ensure that your business is running smoothly, and that you’re actually gaining some benefit from each of the decisions that you’re making.
The easiest way to ensure that this happens is by taking a long, hard look at your business, and figuring out which parts of it will most likely benefit from the changes – and, while you’re doing that, you should also be working to identify precisely what it is you wish you achieve by changing over to the cloud. Once you have identified the benefits you wish to receive, it’s time to talk to a cloud service provider, and get their opinion on what’s most likely to have a positive impact.
Naturally, you should also make sure that you speak to a few people, rather than taking a single salesperson’s advice. Do your homework, and learn about what each of the services is capable of providing – and, if at all possible, talk to some other small business owners who have started or completed a move to the cloud. They will, no doubt, have plenty to say about how it’s all going, and whether it has been worth the effort.
The cloud is set to drastically change a lot of business processes that we’ve come to expect as part of our daily lives. We know it, because this magazine has very recently moved to a cloud-based server set-up, which allows the team to work remotely. It hasn’t been without a few teething problems in the initial few weeks, but the flexibility the new set-up allows has more than off-set the occasional 30 minutes of head-scratching and wondering what’s happening with our data.
The main point is this: in small business, every competitive edge is vital for success. Cloud-based services are a frontier of change at the moment, and in small business, you can never take the risk of being left behind by your competition.