Cloudy, with a chance of pitfalls

Cloud computing conceptCloud computing conjures up all sorts of images (not to mention the opportunities for fun with headlines) but what is cloud and how will it help your business?

If you swap the word ‘remote’ for cloud, you pretty much have it. Cloud is about having some, or all, of your data and software off-site. It could be a server in your office, accessed by the staff there but also by dispersed team members. It could be a server at head office that connects all the other offices. It could be a server run by another company and rented by you.

You may have software on your desktop and data in the cloud or you may have everything in the cloud. If this is the case, you only need a mobile device and an internet connection to work, which means absolute flexibility and choice about how, when and where you work. As with any technology, though, as well as the benefits there are also pitfalls to be wary of.

So what are the benefits?

We mentioned flexibility, so let’s start with that. Whether you are working on a desktop in the office, a laptop at home or a mobile phone in the field, you can access data and systems to work productively, collaboratively and securely. Documents are all in one place, not in several different locations, and can be worked on by more than one person, feedback incorporated and changes saved. With staff working in different locations and at different times, this could increase your ability to service clients’ needs outside of the normal office hours and respond more quickly to problems.

Collaboration is not just about working together on the same data; it can be far more personal. Hosted services like Microsoft Lync can facilitate video meetings that can incorporate files and presentations, whiteboards for sketching ideas and responses and create a very interactive platform.

Economy and scale are also important features. There is no cap-ex because you are renting and paying monthly, you are not reinventing the wheel with an expensive, bespoke software system (unless, of course, this is what you need) because the products you need are there already, some are even free: a small business could even start out with almost no cost, using Dropbox, Google Drive, Skype and similar. While these free (or nearly free) services may get a little clunky as you grow, if you have started with a paid-for service, it can just scale up as you grow, without having to fundamentally change what you have set up.

One issue which can cause consternation is security. However, cloud security is likely to be far better than you could achieve in-house. Cloud providers have a vested interest in keeping your data secure, will have resilience and recovery built-in and back-up is automatic. Additionally, mobile devices are far more secure if they don’t actually have any data on them.

And finally, what happens if there is a problem. Cloud is great for disaster recovery, because whatever happens to you, your staff, your premises, your devices – you will not lose your data.

What does all this mean for your business? Great staff engagement, because they can work flexibly, great control of costs and data and great agility, all of which puts you one step ahead of your competitors. Unless they have already made the move to cloud, in which case you had better move if you want to keep up.

And what are the pitfalls?

As with any system, there are pitfalls to be wary of. Security is always a concern. While a cloud vendor may well be more secure than your own set-up, there are still risks from hacking and other sabotage. Security should influence your vendor decision: multi-site, back-up, power-resilience, etc.

You are also dependent on connectivity, so this will influence your decision as leased broadband to improve performance and resilience is expensive (although installation could be free).

While cost savings can be made and you are saved from cap-ex, there comes a time and a size, depending on your business, where a bespoke set-up may be more cost-effective and more flexible. As you grow, the original services may not grow with you. And anyway, a lot of services may come with very little support or instruction – you will need to look closely at SLA’s. It is important to start with the end in mind.

Our advice is to figure out what you need to do and then get expert guidance. Then you can enjoy cloud, but without the pitfalls.

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It’s official – technology is not important

The point about technology is that the technology is not the point. What technology helps us achieve is what is important. This was the message that came out of the recent Insider’s Technology and the Modern Office breakfast.

We don’t want a mobile phone because we are desperate to have a couple of hundred grams of metal, plastic and circuitry in our pocket – however well designed. We want it to keep in touch, share, connect, retrieve or search for information, etc. – all on the go.

Design for use

So far, so much common sense. However, it is easy to overlook this simple truth because we, or the client, or the IT crowd, get excited over the latest gadget or upgrade and want to make it fit what we think we need. What we should do first then is focus on the problem.

  • What are you trying to achieve – more data, more sale, streamline processes, allow flexible working
  • What are the objectives behind these – increase revenue, reduce costs, improve staff performance
  • Who will use it – clients, prospects, staff, suppliers
  • How will they benefit – save time, save money, make ordering easier, work better
  • How will the proposal achieve the objectives above and why is it better than other solutions discussed or the idea the CEO had that nobody wants to argue with

Whether this is an internal situation for an organisation or a project for a client, the principals are the same: you are not selling the technology but its benefits. (You might even find it more difficult to sell to internal stakeholders, as there is a good chance all they will see is the cost, whereas a client may well have already identified why they want to change and be prepared for the cost.)

A focus on the benefits of the project will help make the right decision, i.e. what it will mean to the company and how it will help to achieve stated objectives, rather than being hell-bent on having the latest, shiny thing. You may be able to test in order to provide proof of concept, which will strengthen the case or provide insight into issues that might otherwise not come to light.

In this way the technology becomes a means to an end, rather than the end in itself. The design, infrastructure and use will all be streamlined into a coherent whole that will make the business more efficient, more effective, more profitable, or whatever other aims are being sought. Technology is not important – what we do with it is imperative.

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Cloud security – whose problem is it?

When confronted with cloud computing, many business owners are sceptical and confused. This is perfectly understandable, since many do not even know what the cloud is. Even those that grasp the concept are unsure about someone else taking control of all their data. This is not just understandable, but an absolutely necessary stance since, in many respects, this data is their business.

The cloud has been with us more or less since the first computers. The days when a mainframe computer took up a good-sized office and ran various terminals remotely, either within the building or between buildings, were the precursor to what is simply a remote server.

Private cloud is owned by the client, either in-house or in their own or rented data centre; public cloud is organised through a third party provider and hybrid cloud is a combination of these.

From a security point of view, it is easiest to say that the client is responsible for all aspects of cloud, since, while it is obvious they need to protect data in their control, they also need to ensure that third party providers are delivering the necessary service to protect their data.

So, it’s all your problem

Just as with any third-party provider (a printer, agent, conference centre, etc) if they get something wrong it may not technically be your fault, but your client will still hold you responsible.

When it comes to data security, then breaches and loss are not just a financial problem but also a brand and credibility problem and is also a legal problem with regard to the Data Protection Act.

This is not to scare anyone. Services from the likes of Amazon, Microsoft, Google will be far more secure than any business could achieve. Smaller providers may be more of an issue, however, and there are various precautions you should take, regardless of the provider.

  • Choose suppliers carefully – understand what they are offering, what their procedures and systems are and determine which are your responsibilities.
  • Protect hardware and infrastructure – ensure you protect your internal hardware like switches, routers and pc’s; software and applications and your network at all levels.
  • Secure data – protect against data loss through implementing policy for storage and access and for use of mobile devices, with particular reference to BYOD. As a secondary measure, if data loss should occur, to encrypt data and emails.

For more information, read this white paper from PC Connection.

 Benefitting from the cloud

Taking precautions should be standard procedure and should not put anyone off the cloud. From the point of view of data being stored on mobile devices, the cloud is invaluable because it stores the data for you, so the danger from lost or stolen laptops, tablets and phones is reduced.

Other benefits include flexibility, agility, scalability, disaster recovery, automatic software updates and cost control. It is also important as part of an agile working policy, enabling employees to work from anywhere, at any time on any device.

So don’t be afraid of the cloud, just take the necessary precautions and make it work for you.

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