The ‘cloud’ and ‘cloud computing’ have been getting a lot of attention recently, and many business owners are looking to the cloud as a solution to many of their problems. Most head in that direction because of perceived cost reduction when compared to existing IT solutions. Some move to cloud because it offers them something they have not been able to achieve with traditional IT before and some use cloud simply because it’s the next big thing and they like to be early adopters. Let’s take a moment to explore a real world explanation of cloud, its benefits and the solutions that can be put into place which can enhance and streamline a business.
Firstly it would be beneficial to explain what is a cloud service? Well, the most basic explanation is “an IT service or function that is provided on equipment not located within your business or organisation”. Some people think that the cloud is a single service when in reality it’s a generic term for any service provided from outside your organisation.
Some of the more well-known cloud services include Dropbox (file storage), Hosted Exchange or Office 365 (email) and off-site backup (data backup). All of these are services which you use without needing any additional hardware, just an internet connection. Other cloud services can include Hosted Phone (PBX) solutions.
So, what are the benefits of such services? Let’s firstly look at what the traditional IT system looks like: a small server in the corner of the office which contains your files and data, and usually your email too. The server is often looked after by a 3rd party support company and they update and check it on a regular basis and report back to you if the backup (tape) has not run correctly, or the anti-virus software needs updating.
The key thing to remember is that this server is locked (literally) in your office 24/7 so if you need something from it you’ll need to get access to it directly and so a good quality, reliable internet connection is also needed. If any of these components fail, the server, the internet connection, the backup or the anti-virus then you face problems.
Let’s take Hosted Exchange or ‘Cloud Email’ as an example. You could simply lift this off the server, leaving everything else in place. What are the benefits of this? Well, firstly the information is now in a location that can be accessed from anywhere and not just from your single server locked in your office. If your office became unavailable through fire or loss of internet connection then you can move to any other internet connected location, like a cafe or even your home, and you would be able to access email. Also, the responsibility for your email backup and recovery moves to the cloud provider and so becomes one less thing to worry about. If your office burned down and your server was lost then all your email would still be there, in the cloud.
If you extend this to file storage, using something such as Dropbox, then the same applies. Your files are now in an off-site location, accessible from any internet connected location and with responsibility for backup and recovery handed to the provider. Taking email services and file storage off your local server and into the cloud allows you to quickly reach a point where that large, noisy and expensive to manage server is looking somewhat redundant. In those businesses where a server may have been installed 4-5 years ago and only provides file and email services, then as the hardware comes up for renewal you can simply elect not to replace it and move to cloud email and cloud file instead.
One important consideration is that many businesses will have more than just email and files on a server; they may have accounts software, business applications and other line-of-business software that needs to run on a server in a local office. That’s fine: there will often remain a need for businesses to retain hardware on site and not to move everything to the cloud. But, it is possible to look at a hybrid model where you reduce the level of onsite hardware (and thus risk) while increasing the level of cloud services which in turn also reduces risk.
So, whilst getting cloud services into your business may not be as clear cut as you might have first thought, the benefits of such services are huge and the level at which they start to make sense for companies is changing. It is very common for smaller businesses to get the most benefit from cloud services, and so a two to ten person business can have full email and file sharing features at their disposal for a small monthly fee and with little or no internal management required. This allows them to compete and challenge larger competitors who have bigger IT budgets and more people to manage any IT infrastructure.