People seem to talk about the Cloud like its new and untested. About 11 years ago I worked for an A.S.P. (Application Service Provider) – companies would come to us and “rent” software which they would access across the Internet. This could be the latest version of Word or Excel, or it might have been a complete desktop which they could run from just about any internet connected machine in the world. Essentially it was an example of what is now broadly described as Cloud Computing, or The Cloud.
Other examples of cloud applications that have been around for a while are slightly more familiar to just about everyone: Hotmail, Gmail, YouTube and Facebook are all cloud apps. They take your local data (e-mail, status updates, photos, videos) and store them somewhere “out there”. You don’t (usually) need to install any software and you don’t need to worry about the security of your precious photos because you know that someone else it taking care of all that for you. A key part of this security is controlling who (if anyone) has access to your data.
In my view The Cloud today is a bit like a smartphone. Smartphones have been around for ages too – Apple weren’t the first but the iPhone was the smartphone that caught the public’s attention. Tablet devices like the iPad have recently followed an identical path to the popularity. You can just look at the Apple variety of smartphones or tablets but you might miss out some nifty features elsewhere.
The same is now happening with The Cloud. Google (and to a lesser extent Microsoft) are banging the gong for this in the same way that Apple does for smartphones, but if you just concentrate on their offerings, you’re missing some of the good stuff.
There’s a whole raft of cloud apps out there. They work within your web browser of choice (pretty much like Hotmail, Facebook et al) but they are far more useful for small businesses, start-ups and entrepreneurs.
For a start, there’s no up-front capital spend and normally no software to install, because they run within a browser they’re globally accessible from just about any internet connected device including PCs, Macs, netbooks and smartphones. You pay only for what you use (normally per user per month) with no minimum contract and sign-up and configuration takes literally a few minutes.
But that’s not what really makes me excited about these apps – the real hook for me is seamless integration. Although they’re all from different suppliers they behave as one (if you want them to). For example, to get your CRM to talk to your accounting software all you do is copy a string of numbers and letters from one into the other and click “OK”. That’s it. You’ll immediately see customer balances and overdue invoices appear in your CRM software.
So that means you can select an accounting system, a time and billing system, a CRM system and a helpdesk system, sign-up and integrate them all within about half an hour. Without buying hardware, without installing anything on your PC, without stress, without running up a huge consultancy bill from your preferred IT supplier and without spending a penny (initially).
To be fair, Google Apps does a lot, if not all of this. And so does Microsoft’s offering (it just takes a bit of technical voodoo currently). But neither do everything you’ll need as a business. Google’s offering is improving all the time – and Microsoft is in the process of finalising a major new revision of their offering (more on that in a future post).
This isn’t crystal ball gazing, this is reality; these are applications I use every day to run my own business. When I started Hill Data Systems, I initially installed a server (out of habit more than anything), but within about a week of discovering “the real cloud”, I was only using the server to store my music collection. All my e-mail, business file sharing and everything else had gone to the cloud. Think of the electricity I’m saving by not having a server running 24 hours a day.
So in summary, what’s my definition of “The Cloud”? It’s a giant smartphone. Decide what you need it for, select the applications you need, personalise your experience and then pay monthly for what you use. And like buying a smartphone, shop around before you commit. The cloud is personal – if anyone tries to tell you that the cloud is “one size fits all” they’re on commission.
Make IT work for your business. Move to the giant smartphone in the sky. Move to the Cloud.
Hill Data Systems specialise in providing IT services to start-ups and small businesses. We are experts in Microsoft Online (and on-premise) solutions but enjoy nothing more than finding the right cloud solution for our clients (Microsoft or otherwise). For more information on anything raised in this blog – or for a friendly chat about your current or future IT requirements – please call us on 0844 824 1918, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org/ or tweet us at @hilldatasystems.