The vast majority of our customers are SMEs and I have helped many of them migrate to the cloud. Here I shall explain what cloud computing is (from an SME perspective), why you should be thinking about it and share my tips on how to get the most benefit from the cloud.
What is Cloud Computing
Cloud computing can be regarded as essentially the provision of computing resources and/or software as a utility, in the same way that your small business uses familiar utilities, such as electricity, water, gas etc. Cloud computing enables you to pay for computing resources as you need them. These services are provided over the internet, on a consumption-based pay-as-you-use model, with short-term contracts and without up-front expenditure.
Cloud computing enables applications, documents, emails and other information to be hosted/stored and managed online or ‘in the cloud’, making them accessible from any PC, laptop or mobile device, and importantly, in real-time. It also negates the need to download or install dedicated software on your own computer, making home working simpler and reducing the need for powerful PCs (and therefore cost).
There are two major benefits of cloud computing. The first is cost saving. Cloud eliminates the need for major IT infrastructure investment, both in the office (less need for powerful PCs) and in the data centre, improving your cash flow. It is also generally much cheaper than the traditional software approach. This is because cloud service providers are operating at massive economies of scale and are able to pool their resources and provide shared services, reducing their costs dramatically, which are in turn passed on to you the user.
Today there are very few organisations that should need to own and manage their own servers in a colocation facility, and it is certainly much more expensive for SMEs to do that themselves. Moving applications to the cloud can enable you to greatly reduce your upfront capital expenditure and slash maintenance costs.
The second is that you and your staff can access your company data, securely, from anywhere in the world. Both of these benefits will result in a major shift in the way that businesses of all sizes use computers. However initially it will be SMEs that benefit the most.
Many businesses are also now turning to cloud computing as a cheaper alternative to using traditional in-house software packages. Many Web-based cloud software services, hosted in a secure data centre, end up costing a lot less in terms of licensing and save the time and hassle involved in downloads and upgrading.
Cloud computing is also energy efficient. Cloud providers are highly motivated to reduce the power and hardware required to supply their services, and are running at sufficient economies of scale to achieve great efficiencies, which in turn reduces the costs to you. When it comes to ICT, saving money and being green are synonymous. Also, having your software Web-based enables home working and can cut down on commuting.
Worries Over Security, Availability, And Performance
The risks, of course, concern the reliability and security of cloud-based systems. With a number of high profile outages last year by providers such as Amazon S3, Google Docs, MobileMe and Twitter, SMEs are right to be cautious.
A major issue with the Cloud at present is security. However, it need not be a big concern, you just need to apply the same common sense you would to sourcing any other service. Ask questions about your prospective cloud supplier; Are they financially sound? Do they have good security procedures in place? Is the infrastructure your data will be on shared with lots of other users, or will it be in its own virtual dedicated environment?
SMEs need to look very carefully at where their data is going and who is responsible for it and they need to know it is well managed. There are plenty of British companies providing secure and cost-effective cloud based services, so just be sure to ask those questions.
If you do need to store documents, I would encourage you to do it yourself. Simply rent a server with suitable software from someone UK-based that has solid service level agreements (SLAs).
Tips for Moving Into the Cloud
Once you’ve weighed the pros and cons, you may be ready to take your first steps into cloud computing. Before you do, consider these tips for making a smooth transition into the cloud computing world.
- Think Big. Cloud computing is inherently scalable, which means that you can select your own level of engagement and upgrade at your own pace. Make sure your service provider will enable you to scale up your computing resource as your business grows.
- Listen to peers. Seek to learn from the experience of other organisations within your business community who have already achieved successes with cloud computing.
- Think strategically about your applications. You should decide which cloud applications will deliver the best ROI and prioritise these.
- Assess security. Ask direct questions about where your data will be stored and who will have access to it. Some providers also have 3rd party security accreditations which can give you additional reassurance.
- Make use of the subscription model. When applications run in the cloud, services are ‘rolled up’ into a predictable monthly subscription, so make sure you are not being lumbered with up-front costs.
- Consider open-source solutions. Look for ways to use free or low-cost cloud tools instead of more-expensive ones. For example, we use Postfix with Thunderbird for email, Trac integrated project management and Wiki, Sugar CRM for customer interaction and Jabber for secure individual and group instant messaging. By self-hosting these apps we’re not getting locked into paying ‘per-seat’.
- Not know where your data is. Users who do not know where their information is held at any given time, especially when its being stored on virtualisation systems and multi-tenancy storage area networks are making themselves vulnerable to security breaches.
- Get locked in. One of the main benefits of cloud services is that they come with little or no contract term which means you can change should the provider prove unreliable. If you are being asked to sign up for more than a few months at a time, something is wrong.
- Forget to ask for detailed security programs. Avoid any vendors that refuse to provide detailed information on security programs.
- Give in too soon. To realise the cost savings that cloud computing can deliver, you do need to be thinking about using it on a long-term basis. By significantly reducing upfront capital expenditure and management overheads, cloud computing allows SMEs to make IT investment plans, which deliver value and success over the long-term. Sometimes there will be transition pains, but it will be worth it in the long-term.
- Go with the first provider you find. Most services offer a free trial or a short term contract, and you can usually figure out quickly whether the user interface will drive you mad or is easy to use. Evaluate more than one service before deciding.
Now is an ideal time for SMEs across the UK to switch to cloud computing. The traditional software approach of installing local applications without built-in scalability and mobility is becoming out dated, and will increasingly hold back your business by depriving you of the flexibilities and cost savings afforded by cloud solutions. Further, this period of austerity where everyone is seeking to make cuts can be an ideal time to make the case for change to reticent colleagues.