Cloud computing can be a convenient and efficient way of managing your business's financial records and customer databases, clinic but it could also save you considerable strife in the event of a data disaster.
There’s never a good time for someone to drive through the front of your office, price but John Clarke thanks his lucky stars that when it happened – on a wet night in August 2009 – there was nobody in the office to get hurt.
That, however, was the end of his good luck that night. The car missed hitting any people but took out the servers running the applications that kept his small business – a Ray White franchise with 14 employees – running. As with many small businesses, there was no backup of the server. The collision sent the office into chaos, and Clarke concedes the next six months saw quite a few dramas as staff worked to keep the business going and he figured out the best way forward.
Having lost a server to physical damage, Clarke was reluctant to simply set up the same thing all over again. That was when he heard about Telstra’s T-Suite, one of the highest-profile in a new generation of ‘cloud’ applications, in which businesses rent access to software that’s set up and run (or ‘hosted’) by a third party, and accessed over the internet from any online computer.
“It really met a need that we had, but at that point had not identified a way of solving,” Clarke says. That need was efficiency, as Clarke was spending around $10,000 per month on what was primarily space for a sales team that only came back to the office to chat, get forms, and access the computer systems. Their constant mobility had already driven Clarke to downsize his retail spaces, but he’d struggled to figure out the best IT system to support them.
Since there is only one repository for all documents, there are never any issues with staff giving customers outdated printouts of contracts – and the shift away from paper means the entire operation only has one filing cabinet. This sort of efficiency is unheard of amongst similar businesses, but it has directly improved the business operation and revenue.
Small businesses, big opportunities
Cloud computing – also known as software-as-a-service (SaaS) or hosted applications – should rightly be forefront in the minds of any small business owner who has struggled with keeping their computers, applications and data running and up to date. After all, it offers unprecedented opportunities to offload the costs of software and server ownership, while at the same time freeing employees from the office and tapping into service providers’ robust data backup, reliable data centres and technically proficient staff.
Ease of access to company information is proving to be a clincher for many companies, since small and nimble businesses often need a way to co-ordinate small numbers of employees that may be spread across the country or across the world.
With a flurry of new providers in the market, small businesses can now easily access everything from productivity applications, fax and email services to accounting, HR, security, antivirus, payroll, CRM software, storage, backup, and even entire Windows computers – without buying any new computer equipment. It’s convenient as you’re always using the latest version of everything, and it’s financially liberating, since cloud services are paid for on a per-month, per-user basis that makes cloud services both easy to account for and easy to change.
Variations on a theme
Although they’re the most accessible form of cloud computing, SaaS offerings aren’t the only type of cloud computing out there. More accessible to small businesses is infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), which is valuable for businesses that provide online services to their customers. IaaS providers offer companies all the trimmings of a high-end data centre – including power, redundancy, high-speed bandwidth, backup, security, and other services. Install your own servers, and an IaaS provider will make sure your apps are always available to your clients.
Facing the fear
Despite the growing base of testimonials confirming its benefits, cloud computing still faces resistance from many corners. People can be resistant to change, which can be overcome through high-level support and clear demonstrations of the benefits of the cloud, such as the ability to easily work on documents with colleagues and business partners. That sort of capability is extremely difficult to deliver on your own, but it’s a cinch when everybody is accessing core documents on the internet.
Gartner noted that small business’ most common concerns relate to data security, service levels, compliance requirements in heavily-regulated industries, as well as good old-fashioned trust. It takes a lot to put your business into another company’s hands, after all – though advocates of cloud computing are quick to point out that service providers are probably much better at keeping IT systems running and backed up than you are. Despite this, in many corners there still exists a veneer of distrust towards cloud computing.
“The server you have sitting in that little air-conditioned room in the basement is nowhere near as reliable, or backed up as any cloud vendor,” says Coffey, transformation manager with public-furniture manufacturer Streets Furniture, which uses Salesforce.com.
“A small business just cannot compete with even the smallest of cloud vendors in terms of their redundancy and security. If a competitor wanted to steal information from your office, they could come and steal paper files or computers with who knows what information on it. If they wanted to steal information from the cloud, that’s hard.”
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