Is cloud computing right for my small business?
This is the question on many small business-owner’s lips at the moment. “The Cloud” is a term that is bandied about pretty liberally these days, but few of us really understand exactly what it means. According to Ripple, cloud computing is most simply defined as pooled, distributed and mostly virtualised computing resources. It allows you to store, access and share data in a central location, from devices that are connected to the internet. Most of us (95%) are using the cloud, even though many of us don’t even realise it. Most businesses use some cloud computing, even if only a little; for example for email, Google Apps, etc. all count as cloud usage.
In more technical terms, cloud infrastructure refers to “the hardware and software components – such as servers, storage, networking and virtualisation software – that are needed to support the computing requirements of a cloud computing model… virtualised resources are hosted by a service provider or IT department and delivered to users over a network or the internet.”
So, now we’ve got a bit of an idea what using the cloud actually involves, let’s have a look at some of the positive and negative aspects of cloud computing for your business.
Cheaper and more efficient
Usually, you subscribe to cloud services on a pay-per-use model, so you only pay for what you use, and when you’re not using anything, you pay nothing. Contrast this to owning and using your own servers – you’ve bought them, and they still cost you money whether your traffic is booming or at a lull. With a cloud service, you’re paying for actual time used, not idle servers (nor the maintenance costs of such), making it more efficient. A great analogy I heard goes something like this: you’ve got friends visiting from abroad who need to be able to get around. Do you buy them a car to use, and have it sitting in front of your house until the next time they visit? Or do you rent them a car, which they only use when they need?
The cloud also allows you more flexibility, as cloud solutions are highly scalable. When there is high usage in the business, you simply pay more at that time – you don’t have to buy and install a new server, with the resulting downtime. This can simplify management of IT within the business and reduce bottlenecks, making everything easier to manage. It is important to find out how much flexibility you get in our package though – some cloud solutions limit integration between applications (for example, you can’t insert a document created in another format into google docs).
With cloud computing, you can have greater control over your resources, especially in the event of a disaster or failure. Not all small businesses have the cash or expertise to invest in robust disaster recovery. Cloud-based back-up and recovery solutions can save time and avoid large up-front investment, plus generally come with third-party expertise as part of the deal.
If you switch mainly or significantly to cloud computing, you are more depending on your internet connection. If your ISP goes down, so does your business. The same goes for the cloud provider. Although they are pretty reliable, they are not immune to outages.
Do you trust your cloud provider? With cloud computing, your data is available over the internet. If you are dealing with highly sensitive and confidential issues every day, you might not want them to be accessible over an internet connection. A data breach or even a disgruntled employee could leave your business vulnerable. The flip side to this, however, is that larger businesses are able to invest more in security, so your data might actually be safer than if you were trying to implement your own security solutions.
Intellectual property rights
There have also been some concerns around ownership issues – once you put information into the cloud, legally, who does it belong to? Is it still your intellectual property? This one may remain to be seen over the next few years, but is definitely something to consider, depending on the nature of your business.
If you use and need to share lots of big files within your business, then there isn’t a great cloud solution for you right now – the bandwidth costs will simply be too high. Therefore, it might be better to stay on a server where those files can be transferred more easily, until costs drop enough to make it viable.
Lack of support
With many web apps, customer service is limited and slow. Before investing in the cloud, find out what the SLAs are with your provider. Will you have to shoot off an email about a problem and wait 48 hours for a response, and can you afford to do that if there are problems?
Weighing it up
Cloud computing is already huge. It’s predicted to generate $270 billion by the year 2020. And while many people see a move to the cloud as inevitable, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. If you make the jump (or, more realistically, the series of baby steps), it has to be well planned and tailored to your overall business strategy.
If you do decide that cloud computing is the way to go for your business, there is a huge variety of ways to implement it, so there are many things to consider. It really depends on what you need. You can personalise the extent to which you move to the cloud (just your email services, or the entirety of your servers and computing?) and what levels of service you will use (Software as a Service or Infrastructure as a Service? Public cloud or private cloud?). Often the extent of the move will depend on many things, including the size of the company, how much control you want to maintain and the specific needs of the business.
We’ve taken a look at some advantages and disadvantages of moving to cloud-based computing in your business, and hopefully given you a few routes to explore, to find out whether the cloud is the right place for you to be. Let us know whether you’re planning on making any big changes to your computing model in the future!