In its most fundamental form, cloud computing hosts your files and applications at a location separate from your business premises and staffed by trained IT experts that oversee their safety and maintenance. Some small businesses might be understandably wary about giving up a large measure of control over their data when they switch to a cloud computing solution. But others find the lower set-up costs and layers of protection that the cloud offers preferable to the expense of doing everything in-house. As you decide if cloud computing is viable for your business, consider what these experts have to say.
Less costly investment
"There's no better tool for a small business to get up and going at a level that previously demanded a lot of investment than cloud computing," says Darran Haessig, an IT consultant at Clarity Technology Group, a Madison, Wisconsin-based IT firm. "You do not need to invest in the resources for this service. And depending on what the service is, [you could save] a large cash outlay."
For example, a business that wants to host its own email in-house would have to provide all the components—such as the hardware, backup systems, maintenance, and security applications. But with a cloud computing solution, Haessig explains, "now you're paying a monthly rate to a service provider, such as Microsoft, that will handle all that for you. All you have to worry about is your Internet connection and your basic maintenance for your everyday PC to get access to it." As your business grows, cloud computing also gives you the ability to scale up cost-effectively.
Savings notwithstanding, some small business owners are uncomfortable with hosting their files at a remote location away from their direct supervision. Many service providers will let you try their services for free or for a limited time. Haessig says that this is an excellent way to see whether they are a good fit for your business, handle your requests promptly, and have security protocols in place that satisfy your concerns.
Secure your devices
While safeguarding your files is certainly an issue, some experts say it's a mistake to think that a cloud solution is inherently more vulnerable.
"Quite the contrary—a data center has to meet compliance standards in the industry," says Charles Henson, vice president at Nashville Computer, a Brentwood, Tennessee-based IT company. "For example, if they are hosting data for a financial institution like brokers or investment firms, they would need to follow the guidelines of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. A facility that hosts data offsite for a healthcare company must meet HIPAA requirements mandated by the government and provide an agreement showing they have met the regulated compliance. Therefore, those machines at the data center are up-to-date, backed-up, and have the kind of security that small businesses or medium-sized businesses don't have with their current server and/or infrastructure today."
Henson says that the devices that attach to the cloud—such as a PC, desktop, Mac, tablet, or smart phone—pose more of a security risk than the cloud itself since employees may be opening suspicious emails or visiting questionable websites. It is the responsibility of the small business owner to come up with policies and practices on computer usage. Still, some IT companies "will assist you in securing your desktop devices as well as ensuring you're getting the right connectivity and the right cloud solution for your environment," Henson says. "So really you need to hire an IT professional that does this all day every day because they understand everything that needs to happen to make sure that your devices are secure."
When choosing a provider, Henson says to work with a knowledgeable IT consultant who can perform a cloud readiness assessment to see what applications your business is running and whether they are compatible with a cloud environment. As part of your due diligence, you should get references, review case studies of the provider's performance, find out the kind of disaster recovery plan the IT provider has, and how you can get your data if the company goes out of business.
Despite these hurdles, cloud computing can be a lifesaver for a small business. For example, Henson says that his firm set up a cloud computing solution for a bookkeeping company based in Franklin, Tennessee that also had employees spread out across the country. When Nashville was flooded in 2010, the bookkeeper called up, panic-stricken because the basement of her building was underwater. She lost everything and wondered what to do. "My engineer told her she didn't need to do anything and not to worry," Henson says. "He told her that her data and her servers were in our data center. She could go home and work as normal. And so they never missed a beat during that Nashville flood."
Get employees onboard
Small businesses that have employees at multiple locations around the country or the globe can use cloud computing to bring them together on a common project easily, and maximize their creativity and skills since they can each access the data efficiently.
"From the standpoint of a global workforce, the cloud is magnificent for this," says Laurel Delaney, founder of GlobeTrade, a Chicago-based management consulting and marketing solutions company. "The ability to do it all on one platform really saves the business owner a lot of time and headaches in a way that's not going to cost an arm and a leg."
Small businesses should look for cloud computing solutions that are easy to use, have a minimal learning curve, and allow employees to log on and have access to files in a minute or less. While some cloud providers offer free service, Delaney warns that it should be clear at what point a fee kicks in—for example, at five megabytes of data—and whether you'll be notified beforehand by email. "You want to know well in advance before you hit that threshold as opposed to getting cut off suddenly or finding that you've reached your maximum capacity. You don't want to get stuck if you're in the middle of working on a project."
Delaney also says that business owners should discuss switching to a cloud-based solution with their employees. Rather than make a dramatic announcement without warning, owners should spell out the reasons for the switch, the benefits to the company, the advantages of the new solution, and the positive impact it will have on their performance. "Get them excited and onboard because it's so important to get a companywide commitment on this," Delaney says.