While cloud computing technology has been around for some time, it is only in the last few years that its full possibilities have been realised. So what exactly is it, how can it help your business and is it worth the investment?
Put simply, cloud computing is a way of using the internet to carry out tasks you typically perform on your computer - such as storing and sharing information using software.
Instead of purchasing software and having to install it on your computer, the applications are hosted on secure servers that you access over the internet - ‘in the cloud'.
You can use the software and input or extract data via your browser (like Google Chrome or Internet Explorer). Because the software and services are delivered over the web, you generally don't need a network server in your business.
While the concept of cloud computing has been around for some time, according to Robert Epstein, head of small business sales and marketing at Microsoft UK, the range of possibilities is still growing.
"What is new is the huge and growing variety of software, and the fact that cloud is now much more effective because of greater bandwidth and faster connections."
Using cloud technology
Typically, businesses will pay a cloud provider - such as Google or Microsoft - a monthly fee, based on what software or services they want to use.
The applications commonly used by small firms include email, customer relationship management software, accounting software and databases. Importantly, the technology also allows firms to store files on a secure internet-hosted server.
Costs vary depending on the services you require, but Microsoft's small business package costs around £9-11 per user per month and includes email, data sharing and web conferencing.
Flexible IT solutions
"Cloud computing can offer small businesses a lot of flexibility," says Epstein. "It's accessible anywhere, anytime from any device that connects to the internet."
It can also be good value for money. Rather than buying software to load on to your individual computer or network, you simply pay a monthly fee.
Equally, using a cloud provider means you do not have to worry about ongoing upgrades or maintenance of your IT facilities.
"This can help you operate on a more level playing field with big companies, because you can access the latest, sophisticated software without high levels of investment," explains Epstein.
There are many cloud computing services to choose from. These are some of the most popular:
Drawbacks of cloud computing
However, it is worth remembering that because cloud computing requires an internet connection it may be difficult or even impossible to work in certain situations. For example, if your internet connection is down you may not be able to access critical data.
It is essential to use a reputable provider and check service level agreements carefully before signing. "Make sure they have the technical capability to deal with your business needs and always ask about their security standards," emphasises Epstein.
"There's no point changing your IT set-up for the sake of it," he concludes. "But if your email package is a bit slow or you're thinking about upgrading, it's worth looking into."
Preparing for the cloud
Adopting cloud technology can represent a fundamental change in the way your company buys and provides IT services to your staff. It's therefore vital that you evaluate the costs and benefits carefully.
Neil Cross from Advanced explains seven key things to consider before adopting cloud computing:
- Work out what you want to achieve and why. Make sure you understand what improvements you want the cloud to bring you. Consider cloud services alongside other options and evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of each.
- Understand your overall business needs - not just IT needs. Many businesses decide to adopt cloud computing to make their systems more efficient. However, cloud computing can mean fundamental changes to your IT infrastructure and an end to services and procedures with which staff are inherently familiar, so it's vital the proposed changes are well-suited to your entire business. Cost savings alone may not be enough to justify such big changes.
- Prepare thoroughly. Plan the introduction of cloud computing meticulously. Work out how it will be adopted, managed and monitored. You can access 'on demand' cloud services in minutes - this can be a good way to experiment with different options before rolling it out across your business.
- Make it less complicated as well as less expensive. Cloud services appear cheap, because they charge a small amount each month. But those monthly fees can soon add up, especially if you add bolt-ons or additional user accounts. Remember too, things can get more complicated. You'll have to work out how to manage your cloud supplier(s) and how to link the different parts of your business IT together.
- Think about the risks. Will your data be held safely and securely? Is your chosen cloud computing supplier reliable and experienced? With data security a serious concern, it's vital you choose a reputable service that employs robust cyber security measures and is compliant with GDPR.
- Choose the right partner. Don't judge on cost alone. Choose your supplier with the same care you would pick any other key supplier. Check what level of service they guarantee, what support is available and when, how will they monitor your service and – crucially – how and where your data is stored and protected.
- Decide what service level agreement (SLA) you need. If you'll be relying on cloud computing, you need it to be reliable. An SLA guarantees a certain level of availability and how quickly you'll get a response in the event of any problems.
Once you have considered the points above, you should be in a position to say how cloud computing can help your business and how to go about implementing it in a way that eliminates risks, minimises disruption and maximises your return on investment.