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Thursday 6 May 2010

Real benefits of the cloud to smaller businesses

The latest techie buzz-phrase is Cloud Computing, but what it actually is and why it is important to real businesses gets lost in all of the technical and corporate jargon surrounding it. This also leads many of us to think that it is only for the big boys.

Although the technology behind the scenes can be complex, the premise is simple - instead of accessing your applications and data using software installed on your desktop , laptop or server in your office - you access them via a browser on the web.

I have started using many of these tools in my, very small, business and have typically found them simpler, cheaper and more powerful than their locally installed counterparts.

For the record, I am using Kashflow for my accounts, to manage my relationships with clients, Payroo for my payroll (amazingly this one is free) and have just started using Google Apps for email, calendar, online documents and spreadsheets, etc.

There are numerous other similar packages out there, but I can only talk from my own experience. Please comment below with your own experiences, so that we can have a broader picture.

The general benefits I have found:
  • No IT headaches - I have no software to install, no updates to worry about, no concerns about which version I am using. As long as I have an internet connection, that's all I need to concern myself with;
  • Manageable cost - I can use all of these for a total of less than £65/$100 per month, with no set-up costs;
  • Ease of use - I have found all of the above to be far easier to use than their desktop counterparts;
  • Greater functionality - with these packages I have the kind of functionality only previously available to large organisations who had invested a fortune in their IT infrastructure. I have access from anywhere, on any machine (including my Blackberry). The programs pass information to each other in real time as well as integrating with my web site where I need them to. Even ignoring the benefits resulting from online access, the functionality of each of these programs is typically greater than their desktop equivalent (with the exception of documents and spreadsheets in Google Apps which have far fewer features than the Microsoft Office equivalents, although this is compensated by the fact that they can be shared with anyone, and any number of people can edit them at the same time!);
  • No obsolescence - I am always on the latest version as upgrades happen seamlessly behind the scenes and I am notified of additional features I can now use.
It is early days for me and I will post on this subject again as I learn more, but I genuinely feel that this is a fantastic opportunity for smaller businesses to level the playing field and urge you to give some of these a try - they all have free trial periods.

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  1. Are you able to do some sort of periodic back-up to your own hard drive / memory? My ill-informed and paranoid concern is that Cloud leaves you at the total mercy of a functioning internet (as it mushrooms and eats up resource) and also the telephone network....

  2. Stephen

    There are different options with the different systems. For example, Kashflow automatically emails me a backup of my accounting data in Sage format once a week.

    The backup routines of the cloud software providers are far more rigorous than most small businesses I know.

    I find it a bit of a mindset change. You need to switch your focus onto the one variable, a stable internet connection (with alternatives if you feel it necessary), rather than all of the other things that can go wrong when all of these things are sitting on your own machines.

  3. I can certainly understand Stephen's concerns, which I'm sure are shared by many.

    I would think losing an internet connection would certainly cause an issue. This is something that happens to us at times and as the whole local area can go down (not solely our own connection) it makes it difficult to get back online, though we do have a backup wireless service.

    There is also a benefit of this too... in that if a local machine goes down for whatever reason then we could have local applications and data become inaccessible until those are repaired.

    With the internet service and a machine going down locally, which has happened a few times now, we experience less disruption as the service is available from any other connected machine.

  4. Hmm - thank you for the helpful comments, gentlemen. I think, taking Glen's comments about "alternative arrangements" on board, I will very strongly consider Cloud computing when the technology behind using mobile phone technology has been sufficiently improved to facilate high-quality and speed connection to the i/net. Think it is close now...

  5. Thanks for the input David. Stephen - I find that it works well in most areas now, but obviously there are still places that have a problem.