Part 1 of our new series aimed at helping small businesses get the most out of cloud computing
If you’ve heard a lot of noise about businesses moving into cloud computing over the past year, maybe you’ve wondered if “the cloud” is really for you. So far the discussion has been dominated by how medium-sized and larger enterprises should move IT resources into the cloud, with a focus on concerns about data security, vendor lock-in and service level agreements.
All valid points, but meanwhile, there hasn’t been so much talk about the advantages for small businesses. As most of our clients are SMEs, we have a particular interest in how they can benefit from cloud computing. In our experience, it doesn’t have to be a huge disruption to your working infrastructure. You can make small steps to take advantage of the new services available, while keeping your business stable and growing.
Working in the cloud: our experience
Over the past 18 months, we’ve moved more and more of our business applications “into the cloud”, using the latest online service offerings. The result? Well, we’re definitely working more efficiently and collaboratively than before. We can access and update real-time data from home or on the road. Our staff can submit their own expense claims for approval, and our clients are kept up to date with the information they need via our newsletters and mailing lists.
Having done it ourselves, we’re also in a better position to advise our customers what might be useful to them – and the pitfalls to look out for.
When you talk about cloud-based services, there is such a huge variety on offer:
- software as a service – subscription-based applications such as Salesforce.com for CRM or Xero for accounting;
- utility computing – file storage, backup and synchronisation (e.g. Dropbox);
- infrastructure as a service – taking your IT infrastructure and maintenance needs offsite and outsourcing them to a provider.
For now, we’ll look at the first point – software as a service – as a preliminary step into the cloud, and take an example of one online application that has changed the way we do business: Xero.
Is the pleasure all ours?
Online accounting program Xero’s slogan is “pleasure doing business”, and while not many people would put “pleasure” and “accounting” in the same sentence, this application has really lived up to expectations.
But wait a minute: financial data in the cloud – isn’t that a security risk? Shouldn’t I keep my data where I can keep an eye on it – on our own server in our own office?
Here’s where some of the benefits of online applications come in – if you choose wisely.
For one thing, well established online services like Xero can provide a level of security, redundancy, backup and support that would be hugely expensive and complex for a small business to provide for itself. Of course, you need to do some research before you choose to invest in a new service provider, but in this case, Xero is meeting stringent requirements from its banking partners, and offering frequent backups and 24-hour support (and we’ve used it – they’re great!).
Secondly, because you pay a monthly fee, there’s no substantial upfront investment, no upgrades to pay for, and no need to arrange onsite technical support visits. This makes software as a service very attractive for small businesses who need to keep on top of cash flow.
The downside? If you lose network access you won’t be able to get to your data. It’s a key issue for the cloud. If your internet service provider has a problem, you’ve got a problem. One cost-effective solution to this is to have a basic network connection with another provider as a backup. Export your data regularly. And remember to weigh up a few hours of internet downtime against a server crash and recovery.
This highlights a major point about cloud computing. It’s not all or nothing, and it’s not ideal for everyone’s needs all the time. You need to consider the pros and cons, and decide what’s going to work for you. That’s what we’re here for – to help you get the most benefit with minimal risk. After all, the cloud might be soft and fluffy but it’s can be tricky to see what’s ahead! It’s good to have help steering your way through it.
A few things to remember when considering software as a service for your company:
- Start small: moving into the cloud doesn’t mean disrupting your business, and it should always be led by what is right for you.
- Try before you buy: many online applications offer a free trial. It’s worth signing up for this to check that the service suits your needs and does what it promises. Just don’t forget to cancel the subscription if you decide not to continue.
- Check the small print: does the monthly fee dramatically increase after 6 months? Are you locked into a minimum contract term? Will you have to pay much more for add-on services?
In our next post: how cloud services have revolutionised the way we communicate with our clients.