It wasn’t all that long ago – as recently as the mid- to late-1990s – that many people still disdained the use of computers as unnecessary and time-wasting diversions from real work. That’s all gone now. Today, only the rarest curmudgeon still shuns the power of computers to make small and midsize businesses more productive and efficient.
Alas, however, another bugaboo has taken its place: Cloud computing.
Research indicates nearly three quarters of small-business owners still don’t completely understand the concept of cloud computing. And nearly six out of 10 of them don’t use the cloud in any way, according to a recent survey of small businesses by Brother International. They are today’s version of those 1990s computer holdouts.
It’s understandable why small and, to a lesser degree, midsize business owners and managers are hesitant to jump into the cloud. The language around cloud-based data management hasn’t always been very clear or consistent. Besides the ill-defined word “cloud” itself, jargon such as Software as a Service (SaaS) and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) can be pretty confusing.
What ‘Cloud’ Means to SMBs
Simply put, the cloud allows small and mid-size business leaders to outsource all or part of their data management to vendors/service providers. The small or midsize business probably will still need to buy, or lease, desktops, laptops and/or, increasingly, mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.
But everything else – servers, software, infrastructure and IT administration – is owned and operated by third-party, vendor-service providers. The small business pays only for the amount of software, hardware or service that it uses.
In many cases, small and midsize companies decide to retain some internal software, hardware, infrastructure and IT experts while outsourcing only certain types or percentages of their data management work. That’s part of the beauty of cloud computing: It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition.
The advantages of cloud computing are clear:
- Reduced up-front capital investment: Less expense on the hardware infrastructure and software needed to perform business tasks.
- Reduce total IT costs over time: When compared with capital costs of buying and constantly upgrading equipment and software, plus the operating costs of maintaining and managing it, cloud computing can lower overall expenditures. (There are some cases, however, where amortizing hardware over three to five years can make ownership a better deal. The devil is in the details.)
- Increased focus on business. Most business owners/managers didn’t get into their line of work to spend big chunks of time dealing with IT issues. Outsourcing IT shifts most of that burden off the business manager’s shoulders.
- Increased flexibility. Instead of buying new equipment and software, as business needs wax and wane and technology evolves, small or midsize businesses can simply alter contracts as needed to get more – or less – data storage and software/hardware/infrastructure usage.
- Increased mobility and efficiency. Authorized users can tap into the cloud from anywhere they can find a connection to the internet (Ethernet, wifi, or cell signal). Managers and employees can be just as productive – and connected to their people – at home, in a hotel room, or in a customer’s office as they are in their offices. That saves time, frustration and money.
Cloud-related Challenges of Note
Cloud computing is not without its challenges. The foremost concern business managers say they have about shifting some or all of their data management to the cloud is security. The next is accessibility – What if the cloud is down when I need it? The third concern deals with performance issues.
A data security breach in the cloud is a frightening thought, to be sure. So is the prospect of data loss. But for many small and midsize businesses that lack the money and/or sophistication to employ the best data security measures on their own, shifting their data to the cloud would be a security upgrade. Cloud service providers have the reputational incentive and the financial resources to use the most up-to-date, top-of-the-line security measures.
Oftentimes, companies using the cloud work in “private clouds” accessible only to their employees, or in “hybrid clouds” in which some of their data and software is inaccessible to the public. Your IT managed services partner can help explore the options.
Other, less sensitive data and software operates in a more public section of the cloud. Many cloud service providers also offer physical backup capabilities that allow companies to store all their data onsite as protection against data theft or a rare, but theoretically possible, catastrophic failure in the cloud.
Cloud computing technology and infrastructure is advanced enough now that most reputable providers offer service accessibility guarantees north of 99 percent, so accessibility problems are rare.
As with all services that small and midsize businesses contract out, some cloud computing providers perform better than others. So business managers thinking about shifting some or all of their data management to the cloud need to do their homework. Read reviews of the various providers. Seek recommendations from trusted colleagues. And consider employing an IT consultant for guidance.
Business managers should definitely investigate cloud options though. Because cloud service providers tend to use the most up-to-date software, hardware and infrastructure, chances are that their performance is better/faster than that of the in-house systems still used by the majority of small and midsize businesses.