SME Technology Briefing: An Introduction to Cloud Computing

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When something is ‘in the cloud’, it means it is accessible online via the Internet. With cloud computing you log into IT resources via the web – typically the service provider’s website – rather than managing those same resources onsite at your company.

Cloud computing is a broad term and is also commonly called application hosting, hosted services or software as a service (SaaS).

To access cloud computing services, you need a computer and a reliable internet connection. Essentially, you take advantage of computing power that’s located outside of your business, rather than relying on computer hardware and software in your business.

For this reason, cloud computing has gained in popularity over the last decade and could potentially simplify IT management and reduce costs for your business.

Cloud computing brings two key benefits:

Reduced complexity: The service provider is responisble for management and support – if something goes wrong, you simply call them.

Reduced capital expenditure: As the same hardware and software is being provided as service, you only pay a monthly fee to your cloud computing provider. There are no expensive, up-front costs for purchasing hardware or software.

Cloud computing services

In essence, you are subscribing to access a service online instead of buying software and the associated hardware to use in your business. The type of services available as a subscription varies, but for most SMEs, is a sufficient and cost efficient way to get access to the following key computing tools and utilities:

Accounting software – Several online accounting services exist, such as Sage, QuickBooks and Xero, which let you manage your finances online.

Collaboration tools – These centralised services, such as Basecamp, Trello and Microsoft Hosted SharePoint allow you to share, manage and track changes to documents, are ideal for cloud computing.

Customer relationship management – Setting up an in-house CRM system can be complex and complicated. With a cloud computing service like you can often get going more quickly.

Email – Cloud-based email services such as Google’s GMail means your business email is handled by an external provider, instead of of being managed by a specialist server on your premises.

Office software – You can log in to a website that functions like a word processor – and save documents online too. Google offers GSuite, a powerful online office software suite.

Why choose cloud computing?

There are clear benefits for SMEs to choose Cloud computing:

1. Cost effective Cloud computing is purchased on a subscription basis. You pay by the month, based on what you use.

2. Increased mobility You access cloud services via the internet, consequently cloud based services are ideal for accessing on the move or from remote locations. You only need Internet access to log in and access your data from anywhere.

3. Scalable In most cases you just add additional monthly subscriptions as you require them, gaining access to more (or less) computer power, services or capacity without investing in extra equipment.

4. Simplified management & administration – Cloud software and services are managed by the suppliers – so you don’t have in-house overhead.

Cloud computing has significant advantages, however there is a downside. A reliable Internet connection is needed to enable access to cloud services. If your Internet connections fails, you won’t be able to access it.

Is the cloud right for your business?

It is now viable to run most areas of your business IT in the cloud – the number of available cloud services has grown enormously in the past few years with an increase in availability of good internet connections.

1. What do you want cloud computing to achieve and why

Your business IT should improve how your company operates in some way – compare cloud services alongside other options and evaluate the benefits and risks. Moving to cloud computing because it looks cheap should not be the primary reason. Assess and evaluate the total costs to ensure cost savings are significant and worth the transition to cloud computing.

2. Idenitfy the overall business needs

Many businesses decide to adopt cloud computing to make their IT 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.

3. Plan thoroughly before using cloud computing

It might seem obvious, but it’s surprising how many businesses don’t do this. 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 with your credit card or via free trials – this can be a good way to experiment with different options and try some practical examples of cloud computing in your business. However, this doesn’t mean you should become complacent about the planning required.

4. Don’t forget the bigger picture – simplication and cost efficiency

Cloud computing won’t necessarily save you money. Most cloud services appear cheap, because they charge a small amount each month. But those monthly fees can soon add up and you may wish to add bolt-ons or additional user accounts which can significantly increase the monthly cost.

Additionally, things might 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. For example – do you have existing integrations between software and applications that need to remain if you switch to the cloud?

Consider both cost and complexity when evaluating cloud options.

5. Assess the risks

Carefully consider the potential risks of cloud computing, as well as the benefits. Will your data be held safely and securely? Is your chosen cloud computing supplier reliable and experienced? With data security a concern for many in the digital age, it’s vital that you choose cloud services that are reputable and which demonstrate a commitment to battling against cybercrime and remaining compliant with GDPR.

6. Identify a suitable partner

Your choice of cloud computing supplier will be key. Don’t judge on cost alone. It’s far more important that your supplier can manage their services in line with your requirements.

Choose your cloud computing supplier with the same care you would pick any other key supplier. Check what level of service they guarantee, what support is available, how they monitor your service and – crucially – how and where your data is stored and protected.

Take time to review the requirements of the GDPR and ensure any cloud service you choose complies with the regulations.

Carefully check the hours your cloud provider’s support team is available; 24/7 chat support at the least will be desirable. Alternatively, you should ensure that providers who don’t provide one-to-one support have a sizeable amount of online self-help content available in the form of knowledgebase articles and videos.

7. Determine what sort of service level agreement (SLA) you require

If you’ll be relying on cloud computing for crucial parts of your business IT, you need it to be reliable. For instance, if your customer database is in the cloud, losing it even for just an hour or two could cause huge disruption.

An SLA is a commitment to you from the cloud provider. It should g1uarantee a certain level of availability for the service, and detail how quickly you’ll get a response in the event of any problems.

SLAs are contractually binding and give you a performance guarantee you can hold your cloud provider to.

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.

What Next?

Cloud computing is well-suited to SMEs where several people need access to the same people such as a CRM system or a collaboration tool. Cloud compluting is also suitable for when employees need to access data from several locations, or when its important you keep data off-site.

However, some services such as photo and video editing software, are less appropriate, and continue to work best when installed on an individual computer.

Seeing that a basic cloud service can start as little as £5 per person a month, compared to the money saved from buying a server, installing software and training, the cloud is a very attractive option for SMEs.

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