The progress made by cloud service providers in recent years has helped SMEs improve efficiencies by equipping them with the tools to take their business offerings to the next level.
When people think of cloud services, the first thing that comes to mind is storage. Products like Dropbox and OneDrive have successfully integrated into consumers’ day-to-day routines thanks to the convenient storage functionality that they provide to smart device owners. Although storage is one of the many benefits that advancements in cloud technology has provided to consumers in recent years, it’s only one aspect of a new ‘cloud revolution’ that is changing the way Irish SMEs do business.
Silver linings of the cloud
The nature of cloud technology allows business to customise it in ways that best suit their needs, however, there are a number of common benefits that most SMEs enjoy when they embrace cloud computing.
1. Remote access
Cloud technology breaks down the traditional office structure, allowing employees to work from a remote location. Yes, it’s true that ‘working from home’ is not a new phenomenon, but cloud technology allows staff working remotely to have the exact same access to office systems that they would enjoy if they were working on the official premises.
There are a few documented approaches to this, but one of the most effective methods of remote access via the cloud sees an employee installing an application on their laptop that, when activated, opens up a virtual version of their office desktop complete with all the programmes that they need to complete their tasks. From this remote desktop they also have access to company servers, meaning that they will never experience the conundrum of “I left the file I need on my office computer”.
The platforms that provide these applications are usually premade by the cloud services provider, but can be customised to the needs of a particular organisation. This offering is often referred to as Platform as a Service (Paas).
Remote access has no proximity limits. Access to an organisation’s system can be permitted to users located all over the globe. This type of access is important to staff working across various industries. Examples include: staff of media organisations that are covering global events, sales staff who are on the road and need to report back on leads and staff of events companies who are splitting their time between working off site while managing day-to-day administration tasks.
Something else that remote access via the cloud provides, is the opportunity to setup a foreign office, or a satellite location for an organisation, with a fraction of the infrastructure or investment requirements that would have been necessary a decade previous. An Irish company for example could have a client services manager based in London who could meet potential clients in person at an hour’s notice. After the meeting, the manager can still access the same system as the Irish office to log the activity or make a report, and there is no business lost due to logistical or travel problems that may have occurred if an Irish staff member had to scramble to arrange a flight to the UK.
2. Software flexibility
Access to cloud services has allowed businesses in certain sectors to access the most industry-relevant technology, while constantly availing of all available updates, in a flexible and cost effective way. This offering is sometimes referred to as Software as a Service (SaaS).
One of the best examples of this is the Adobe Creative Cloud. For years creative agencies purchased enterprise licences for Adobe’s programmes such as Photoshop, InDesign and Flash, either as individual applications or as part of specific suites for their creative professionals. The investment was sizeable, and for some agencies, this meant that they couldn’t afford to invest in updated versions of the software for a number of years.
In 2011, Adobe unveiled Creative Cloud, a monthly or annual subscription service that delivers these programmes online. The software is downloaded from the Internet, installed directly on a local computer and can be used as long as the subscription remains valid. Access to the Creative Cloud is available through multiple licencing options and for short and long term subscriptions. For example, a company that is providing graphics for a sports channel can purchase access to the entire suite of video production apps for a three-person team for a year. On the other end of the spectrum a freelance journalist can purchase access to Adobe InDesign for one month only so they can mock up a portfolio of their work.
This type of flexible subscription-based cloud services is now present in the financial sector and in other industries in the form of sales and accounting software.
3. Data security
Perhaps one of the most talked about, perceived flaws of cloud services is security. It is often the assumption that if an SME was to store its data in the cloud, it is then taking a huge risk because the servers that are hosting the data are not instantly accessible to them. It obviously depends on the security capabilities of each individual SME, but it is likely that a business that has a staff of 1-10 people will not be able to compete with the security offerings of a cloud services company that has been setup to manage the business of hundreds of different firms.
Even if a CEO of an SME has decided that cloud services are suitable for their business, they still have a level of control over what services or data they wish to be accessible via the cloud. There are services available that offer remote access to a company’s systems but do not require a complete migration to the cloud.
Furthermore, depending on the nature of the business, a company can make the decision to keep ‘mission critical’ data or services out of the cloud. Cloud does not have to be an ‘all or nothing’ solution, hybrid approaches that best suit a business’s needs are possible.
Security concerns should be one of the first things that an SME addresses with a cloud services provider. The provider should have no problem demonstrating their security capabilities to a potential client.
When it comes to security, the organisation can’t solely rely on its cloud service providers but should take steps of its own to ensure it has a documented BYOD policy in place.
4. Access to enterprise level resources
For many SMEs, a small team or sometimes just one person, manages the IT operations of the organisation. Depending on the cloud services provider, when an SME avails of their services they would likely have access to an account manager who in turn would be working with a large staff of IT workers that would be on hand to resolve any IT issues with the SME’s account.
One service that is discussed a lot in relation to support in the context of cloud is disaster recovery. In relation to IT, disaster recovery is a documented process or set of procedures to recover and protect an organisation’s IT infrastructure in the event of any disaster that compromises its systems. In recent years cloud services have become part of the disaster recovery discussion for SMEs as companies choose to back up their work in real-time via the cloud.
Businesses can constantly backup their system via the cloud and, in the case of a disaster, restore their system to its exact state at the time of the last ‘capture’ or ‘screenshot’. Similar to Apple’s Time Machine service, this is a backup tool not an archival tool. Most cloud service providers offer a variation of this service.
Considering cloud for the first time
If you think that your SME could benefit from cloud services there are a few things you should do first before you take the leap.
1. Make a wish list
Write down a list of every IT system in your business, legacy or otherwise. When you are shopping around for cloud service providers, inquire which elements are suitable for the cloud and which are not. Be sure to discuss access, cost, storage, security and any other concern you may have.
2. Take it room by room
As if you were redecorating your house on a budget, if you do avail of cloud services, consider migrating one system on your list to the cloud on a trial basis, making sure to survey how your staff are integrating with the new approach. After the trial period do up a snag list and talk to your account manager about improvements that can be made to the service before you consider moving other systems partially, or fully to the cloud.
3. Do what’s right for your business
The benefits of cloud services are plentiful and are widely discussed, but the decision to avail of these services comes down to a business-specific, case by case basis. For example if an SME has the staff and infrastructure to store data and manage their systems and back up data, then they may not need the assistance of a cloud service provider for their day to day operations.
However, if any of the above benefits of cloud sound as if they could improve efficiency for your business or could help facilitate an upcoming project, or assist the migration of operations overseas, there’s certainly no shortage of options in the cloud.