If, like me, you run a small business then you probably don’t have a dedicated IT department or racks of computer hardware in multiple data centres around the globe.
But, even without vast resources, human or capital, you can still make use of IT systems and services on a par with those used by large organisations, and all you need is a decent internet connection and some run-of-the-mill devices to connect to them. This is possible thanks to cloud computing, which is fast becoming the de facto standard method for delivering and receiving IT services.
But what is cloud computing? Why should you consider it? What are the potential pitfalls? And how can you avoid them?
What is cloud computing?
Cloud computing in its purest form is pay-as-you-go IT, online and on-demand. The IT capabilities provided as a service to businesses include single software applications or software suites; online software development platforms; and virtual computing infrastructure, ranging from data storage to computer grids. These services can be readily procured from public cloud providers.
The three main categories of public cloud computing options are as follows:
- Software as a Service – for ready-made online applications;
- Platform as a Service – for creating customised applications to match your processes; and
- Infrastructure as a Service – for complete control over your applications and the underlying operating systems.
Surveys reveal that the most commonly used public cloud services in 2011 were remote data storage and back-up solutions such as DropBox, while email and office applications such as Google Apps were the most popular type of SaaS product. This was almost certainly because of the low (or zero) cost associated with these services, especially for small businesses, and the relative ease of deployment.
However the number of businesses paying for these ‘basic’ services and more complex SaaS products, which require a bit more consideration, such as accounting, collaboration and payroll systems, is on the rise.
Why should you consider it?
Here are some reasons why you might consider cloud computing:
- Less time (and money!) spent administering non-core commodity IT systems internally;
- Faster development and deployment of differentiating, customer-centric applications;
- Data storage and compute resources scale seamlessly with your business;
- Faster entry to new markets using cloud-based software delivery and content distribution services, and online application marketplaces;
- Fewer hardware assets and software licenses to track;
- Instant access to the latest version of cloud-based software with no upgrade costs;
- Mobile services, online collaboration and remote access supported ‘out of the box’.
Moreover, if you want your business to be environmentally friendly then cloud computing facilitates home working and can reduce the need for business travel, while some cloud services claim to be very energy efficient and/or carbon neutral. And if your workers can make use of their own laptops and mobile devices to access your cloud-based systems you can avoid buying as much hardware for your staff and perhaps make more use of contractors so that you need less office space and your workforce can scale up and down – just like your cloud computing systems.
Potential pitfalls and how to avoid them
But every business is different and not every cloud has a silver lining. Surveys consistently reveal that data security and data privacy in public clouds are the primary concerns for businesses.
On the data security front, you would be wise to use services that employ two-factor authentication –you can, for example, set up Google Apps to text message pass codes to users who have to enter the latest code, along with their password, while logging in from unrecognised devices. As for data privacy, remember that you are responsible for protecting any data you have about your customers, not your IT vendor.
Other common concerns about cloud computing are:
- The inherent dependency upon internet access;
- Finding reliable and viable cloud providers;
- The potential for vendor lock-in;
- Unexpected cloud service charges and internal costs;
- Contractual liability for services if service level agreements (SLAs) are missed.
Internet access is of course necessary for using cloud services, but if you have lots of users using a relatively bandwidth-heavy service from the same location (your office, for example) then you should ensure that you have a decent, reliable internet connection, and consider investing in a 3G/4G router as a back-up if your mobile devices do not already provide you with this network redundancy.
You should ensure that any cloud services you are considering have:
- Acceptable levels of downtime, performance and security
- Adequate security controls, service level agreements and monitoring capabilities
- Affordable total monthly service costs for your maximum expected usage in the long term
And the cloud services should also:
- Satisfy your organisation’s data protection and industry compliance requirements
- Integrate easily with your favourite desktop software, internal systems and other cloud services
- Fit well with your development platforms and programming languages
- Preferably be interoperable and afford easy extraction and migration of data in a structured form where meaning is preserved
That last point is particularly important: always make sure you have an exit plan in case your cloud service provider goes out of business or a better service comes along.
Making the move
If you are risk averse then you can use cloud computing just for non-sensitive data and non-critical business applications. But small businesses are generally less restricted than large organisations and that gives you an advantage. You can act quickly and you can always be at the cutting edge when it comes to IT services. So make that move to cloud computing and keep moving!
Post by Dr Mark Ian Williams, CEO of Muon Consulting Ltd and author of ‘A Quick Start Guide to Cloud Computing’.