It took less than a minute—just long enough for the Starbucks barista to confirm my order—for a small business catastrophe to occur. While my back was turned, some sticky-fingered thief swiped my laptop.
You can imagine my reaction. Like many small business owners, I used my laptop as a key element in operating my business. Everything was on there: projects in development, banking, employee information and more. Recreating that information from scratch would take hours, weeks—in some cases, months! The risk exposure was tremendous, both financially and in terms of my team’s personal security.
But this story has a happy ending. The fact that our company uses cloud-based technology for our operations meant that I could, using my smart phone, remotely disable access to all critical data. The thief had a nice laptop, but they didn’t have a way to rip off my personal or professional information. Better than that? My total downtime was less than ten minutes.
What is “the cloud?”
The cloud is just the latest, most powerful incarnation of a very old (in tech-time terms) concept: remote computing. Cloud computing is the delivery of computing services, such as storage or software, over the Internet as opposed to those services being hosted on an individual user’s computer. When you use Gmail or QuickBooks Online, you’re using a cloud-based service.
Some cloud-based firms offer free services. Google Docs is a suite of services that provides word processing, spreadsheet, and slide-show software; FreeCRM offers lead management, and Evernote promises to help you remember everything. Other services charge a monthly subscription fee, including Microsoft’s Office 365, Adobe’s Creative Cloud, and 37signals’ Basecamp project management platform.
“When a small store I owned needed a better method to log packages in and out, we realized that we would have to create our own,” says Patrick Weir, president of EZTrackIt, a package tracking service. “Cloud computing allowed us to create a solution that could be shared easily among computers, both our own and then to clients. This made the solution possible not just from a technical perspective, but also from a business one.” Without access to cloud-based technology, developing services like this, that depend on access to significant amounts of computing power, would be cost-prohibitive.
“As a small business owner, cloud-based services have streamlined many of my administration functions, provided additional back up for business documents, and enabled easier access to those documents from multiple locations,” says Janet Hoffman, president of HR Aligned Design, a New York City-based human resources consulting firm. “Sharing documents and keeping versions current with multiple parties has become easier.”
The cloud has also had a transformative effect on small business’s ability to collaborate and compete. Services such as Google Docs and Dropbox facilitate document sharing, while remote conferencing platforms like WebEx and GoToMeeting enable multi-media meetings. The cloud’s ubiquity has made it the go-to solution for connecting with clients and employees, no matter where they’re located.
Better back ups and superior storage
Computers crash. Clouds don’t. One of the primary benefits of using cloud-based technology is that your business is protected against computer crashes and loss. We can’t forget about operator error, either. Failing to hit “Save” at a critical moment can result in catastrophic data loss. When you’ve got a customer waiting, there’s not always time to re-create all of your efforts. Cloud-based storage preserves your data so it can’t be lost due to human error or natural disasters. Retrieving your data from the cloud is simple and easy.
Additionally, the data storage capacity offered by cloud-based services is exponentially greater than the amount the typical small business owner could expect to access on their desktop. The alternative, offline approach would be extremely costly and labor intensive for a small business, as it involves saving data to an external hard drive and then moving that redundant storage platform offsite.
Is the cloud secure?
According to John Souza, president of online training company Social Media Marketing University, choosing the cloud can offer better security than offline options. As proof, Souza cites a recent report by Alert Logic, a cloud-based security provider. That report found 46 percent of corporate security systems were hit by brute force attacks, versus 39 percent of cloud providers. Further it found malware had gained entry into 36 percent of on-premises computer systems, versus only 4 percent of cloud-based systems.
But small business owners still need to do their research. “The bad news is that security on the cloud is pretty uneven. Many sites can and do share all kinds of personal information about their users to other companies and to the world at large,” says EZTrackIt’s Weir. “The good news is that many more sites protect their user data with a zealous passion. The trick is knowing which is which.”
When asked for best practices small business owners should follow when using the cloud, Weir points to three simple things to keep in mind: money, reputation, and privacy. For example, that ‘free’ service might not be such a good deal after all. “Every website needs revenue to keep their lights on,” he notes. “If their service is free then odds are they are getting that revenue by selling your information.”
“Be aware of what your responsibilities are,” says Hoffman. He cautions small business owners to hold cloud services to the same expectations of security and privacy they would have for on-site data storage. “Depending on the business’s function, these standards may involve legal requirements and could be higher for some than for others,” he explains. “For instance, there are government regulations about handling credit card information and personal health information. Businesses should move forward with leveraging cloud based solutions by taking the time to consider all implications for their business.”