Tag Archives: cloud computing

The Current Microsoft Cloud (BPOS)

Confession: I use and sell Microsoft Online Services (amongst other things).   There, I’ve said it.

Let me clarify by pointing out that I’m not anti-Google (I use their Chrome browser and their Android mobile phones, as well as their search engine and maps service).  I didn’t fall into using (and selling/supporting) Microsoft ‘s Online offerings because I’m a Microsoft “fanboy” – like everything Microsoft that I use, I use it because it’s what I know.

Does that make me lazy?  I don’t think so, I have, after all been supporting Microsoft products for the best part of 20 years now.  I know their quirks – and more importantly I know how to work around them.

Does it make me wrong? No, as I’ve said in a previous post, the Cloud is personal – Microsoft’s offerings won’t be a perfect fit for all businesses.  Likewise, Google Apps won’t be a perfect fit for everyone.  It just so happens that Microsoft’s offerings work perfectly for my needs and most of my customers.

But like I say, the key point here is that I’ve never needed to use Google Apps.  When I made the decision to move my business to the cloud I chose Microsoft initially for all the reasons outlined above and not out of some misguided loyalty.  To be honest, I think the geek in me wanted it to fail so that I could justify spending time-out learning new techie stuff…

But the remarkable thing about Microsoft’s current online offering (the rather ridiculously named Microsoft BPOS – or “Business Productivity Online Suite”) is that there is nothing new to learn. 

The migration process is simple enough for most moderately techie users to follow and the step-by-step guides provided are good enough, but it’s always worth having someone with experience of the process on hand – and this is where Microsoft’s Online Partners come in with assistance and advice, if you’re looking for one I can strongly recommend a small outfit in Salisbury by the name of Hill Data Systems!  However,  there is also an integrated helpdesk system with which you can contact Microsoft’s Online Support team directly.

The migration path is flexible enough that you don’t have to move everyone in one go – you could for example migrate one department or group at a time, make sure they are happy, and then migrate the next users.

So, once users have migrated across, what will they notice has changed?  Well, they’ll have a shiny new “Single Sign on” tool that will pop-up when they first start their computers and will automatically sign them in to the service – but this can be set to minimise down to the system tray once it’s done its thing – and no user input is required once this is configured.  Other than that, they probably won’t notice anything at all!  And that’s the beauty, for me at least, of BPOS – there is very little user training to do at all.  No need to learn a new word processor or e-mail client or whatever.

Your techies will probably be glad to see the back of your old e-mail server once migration has finished.  And your users may find that they no longer need to use fiddly VPNs to connect up to use their e-mail when on the road:  Outlook will have been reconfigured to automatically connect securely to the Exchange-Online servers from wherever you are.  There you go:  things actually get simpler for the user!  And, if you don’t have Outlook to hand (because you’ve borrowed  an iPad for example) you can just point a web browser to the Exchange Online servers and use the full featured Outlook Web Access client.

Other than Exchange Online, BPOS also offers Sharepoint Online – a cut down version of the full Sharepoint solution that you may have installed on your own servers and which offers very limited shared storage for files (250MB added to “the pool” for every user signed up to BPOS – so if you have 5 users, you get 1.25GB of total storage space for any use to utilise) but it still provides the important things you’d expect from Sharepoint: version control, search facilities, basic document workflow (the ability to forward a document from person to person as it is filled in and authorised), customisation, Wikis, team sites etc.

The other apps included are Live Meeting (which enables you to conference/collaborate/present with others across the internet) and Office Communicator Online which in BPOS provides Instant Messaging functionality (think MSN Messenger/AIM etc) and presence information (the ability to see if a colleague is free/busy/in a meeting etc).

Now don’t get me wrong, BPOS is a good, solid way to start moving to the cloud, free up IT departments from supporting troublesome e-mail servers and minimise training for users.  It’s just not as glitzy as other offerings, such as Google Apps. 

Even its name is a little embarrassing: “BPOS”.  This is why it’s a good job that “Office 365” is just around the corner (it’s currently in the final stages of beta). 

From what I’ve seen of Office 365 so far, things are about to get exciting… 

Ken Hill is the owner of Salisbury based Hill Data Systems.  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 info@hilldatasystems.co.uk/ or tweet us at @hilldatasystems.

What is this Cloud thing anyway?

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 info@hilldatasystems.co.uk/ or tweet us at @hilldatasystems.