Over the past few years, there has been increasing talk about ‘cloud services’ and how they can help your business. So what are ‘cloud services’ and how can cloud in the real world help you? Essentially, they are services for tasks that traditionally you would do using software installed on your PC or laptop. With ‘Cloud’, the software (and often your documents and data) are stored on high-powered central servers. You access these over the internet. In some instances, there are options to store copies locally on your PC too. This allows you to work on them even when you aren’t online. As soon as you are connected again, your ‘local’ data automatically synchronises with the data held in the cloud – clever!
One of the first cloud services to ‘go commercial‘ addressed a perennial IT issue – data backup. As someone who has lost data as a result of IT failure, I am only too aware of the value of keeping up to date backups. However, for many people, it seems the discipline of backups is too much. Either the cost of dedicated and automated onsite backup hardware is too high, or the routine of taking backups is allowed to slip. I find it remarkable how often I come across people who have no reliable backup of their critical data. If they found their core information stolen or corrupted beyond recovery, there’s a real risk to their entire business. Cloud backup seemed like the ideal solution. Virtually limitless online storage capacity and simple web-based systems to automate the backup process. All very well in theory but, in my experience, there is a problem – bandwidth. Most businesses these days have a LOT of data they want to back up. With modern hard disks running to several terabytes of capacity, many companies have hundreds or even thousands of Gigabytes they need to backup regularly. Even with fibre broadband running at 30-40Mb, data simply moves too slowly! It is one of those areas where people selling the services will focus on the ease of operation once the system is up and running (and only updating changes to data). The issue is the time taken to upload the data in the first place. Also, (perhaps more important) download it again after you find your office server has been stolen (for example!) Although I am increasingly a fan of cloud services, I still believe backup is an area where, in the real world, it is good to hold your own data if practical!
Run your business from the pub (or anywhere)!
These days, more and more businesses are using whole suites of cloud-based software for day to day operations. The 2 leading players are Google with its G-Suite and Microsoft with Office 365. Interestingly, although they started from very different positions, their offerings are coming together. Google started off as the realm of the home office. Its software (Word Processor, Spreadsheet etc.) were free to use and pretty well specced and integrated fully with other online storage and services. Microsoft on the other hand, came from the corporate world of Microsoft Office, Word and Excel etc. Where Google was free, Microsoft was quite pricey. These days Google has raised its game in the quality of its cloud software but now there is a cost. Microsoft, on the other hand, has developed a wide range of licencing options. These can be very affordable and some include the option to still have core office products (Word, Excel etc) downloaded and installed on your PC. Both offer extensive cloud storage included (up to 1TB in the case of Microsoft) so it is increasingly practical to work from anywhere you have a decent internet connection. The cloud storage syncs to your PC too so you can even work when you are offline as we talked about above. Just now, Microsoft is rolling out some interesting developments to their Office 365 platform making collaborative and team working even easier Another interesting area is the growth of cloud-based accounting systems. BSA moved our accounts to the cloud 2 years ago. I plan to look at how we are getting in in detail in an upcoming article.
Cloud in the real world
When cloud applications started to get noticed a few years ago, they were promoted as the NBIT (Next Big Internet Thing). Many people were sold on the fantastic opportunities they offered. In reality, they often proved difficult to use and even impractical as part of normal day to day business (unless you were in the software business!). These issues have now substantially been addressed and cloud software is a real alternative.
What about the backups?
Although both Google and Microsoft cloud data storage (and other specialists such as Dropbox) offer the option to sync your cloud data to your local PC, what happens if the cloud dies? Should you have a backup? My view is probably, yes, But, think of the impact on Microsoft or Google or Dropbox if they lose everyone’s data. It could put a billion dollar business at risk! Their problem is bigger than yours so maybe the cloud is safe enough? Personally, I look at it this way. If I lose access to my live business data, wherever it is stored, what am I going to do about it? If I know the answer and I am comfortable with that answer then I reckon I am covered!
Is cloud for you?
As so often in the real world, whatever the hype, common sense normally prevails. Cloud software and storage offers some fantastic opportunities to businesses. However, make sure you really understand how it will work in YOUR business before you commit