Don’t be afraid of the big, bad cloud

It’s official: cloud computing has hit the mainstream. But many small businesses are still unclear about cloud computing. More than half of SMEs, when surveyed, admit they don’t know what it is. Here’s a quick summary.

Cloud computing is the same as "software as a service" (SaaS), when software and services are delivered over the internet through a browser, not stored on your actual computer. This means that all maintenance – upgrades, expansion etc – happen virtually, without needing to mess around in your staff’s computers.

What does this means for SMEs? Here’s a quick guide to cloud computing for your business:

Firstly, moving to the cloud is easy. The transfer of business information into the cloud is very straightforward and there is no need to install new hardware or software as everything is run by the cloud provider.

Cost savings could be higher than you anticipate. Businesses that move to the cloud can make savings on many different levels – IT hardware and software expenditure is cut dramatically and fewer staff or support resources are needed for IT maintenance. Last September, analyst group IDC estimated that business can instantly reduce their IT spend by approximately 54 per cent by moving to a cloud-based solution.

One of the other key benefits of cloud computing is that employees can access documents and emails while away from the office. If your business demands mobility and flexibility, or you have staff keen to extend their use of home or remote working, the cloud could be a straightforward and affordable way of addressing these needs.  

One of the great myths of cloud computing is that, with data stored on an outside server, it is somehow insecure. In fact, cloud computing can be more secure than traditional IT. It’s all about economies of scale – many established cloud suppliers employ leading security experts, invest vast amounts of money into securing their applications and develop technology beyond the means of any small business. In addition, the risk of losing confidential data on a laptop or a USB stick is also diminished, as everything is stored in the cloud and not on your devices. (Last year, a survey from CREDANT Technologies found that 55,843 mobile phones and 6,193 other devices, such as laptops, had been left in the back of London black cabs during the previous six months.)

Cloud computing providers not only offer 24/7 support but also the increased resiliency and redundancy afforded by multiple data centres to ensure your information is always available. This means that you experience less downtime than when managing IT in-house, and any problems can be solved far quicker by being fixed centrally. IDC estimates that businesses operating in the cloud achieve 97 per cent greater IT reliability.

Cloud computing also allows a more collaborative way of working. Using cloud computing applications, people can work more closely together, accessing and working in the same documents in real time, without the need for hundreds of emails with attachments.

Without sounding like too much of an evangelist, cloud computing helps SMEs to be flexible, too. Cloud-based "pay as you go" style services allow you to easily increase your use of cloud services as your business grows, or decrease your spend if you need to temporarily scale down. 

Look at how teenagers interact – on Facebook, Bebo or MySpace – all cloud environments. These teenagers will soon become employees, accustomed  to collaborating online and accessing their data from any mobile device at hand, not expecting to work in one location and from nine to five. Start preparing your business now.

Robert Whiteside is head of Google Enterprise, UK, Ireland and Benelux.

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