Embracing the Cloud: Streamlining Small Business IT

It’s all up in the clouds.

When it comes to the way small and medium businesses run their IT infrastructure, it sure should be.  One of the biggest challenges the owners of a small business face is bringing the latest and greatest of IT tech to their staff without the costs that come with it.  Increasingly there is a need for a full fledged suite of tools which, under normal circumstances, can be quite cost prohibitive.  While non-profits enjoy heavy discounting on server software and licensing, paying full price is dear.  There are some great open source options, many with active and reliable communities for support, but you wind up relying on a sparse few – and expensive – contractors when things really do go wrong.  Cloud computing offers small and medium businesses a full gamete of IT tools at a very reasonable monthly cost.  From web hosting to SharePoint, your options are varied and price points competitive.  Sometimes the monthly cost can seem a bit of a hard swallow, particularly if you have more staff, but keep in mind a (good) systems admin will cost nearly $4,000 a month in salary – maybe more.

In the interest of fairness, perhaps we should deal with some potential drawbacks of cloud services.  You never actually own the software.  When you terminate your contract with the provider all the software goes with it.  Going the self-hosted solution does mean that, at the end of the day, the software you buy is yours forever.  There’s the issue of your content lives in another physical location.  If you deal with private or sensitive information it may be worth consulting with a lawyer to see if this violates privacy laws.  It also means if their location is compromised, your data is vulnerable.  While you do lose a sense of control with your data off-site, in truth they can provide much better security and storage than you ever could.  Also, cost of ownership may be less over time.  That said, I’m not actually sure it is.  Cloud services have low up-front costs but, as you use them, those monthly costs can add up.  In many cases, however, when you compare an apples to apples situation – upgrades and staffing costs included – cloud services still come out on top.  Of the clouds.  Heh.

Is it for me?

Given everything I just said up there, the answer here isn’t always yes.  As with anything IT, especially large infrastructure related projects, make sure you spec out your needs first.  Sometimes you may actually be to small to get any value out of cloud services.  There are few things that should rule out cloud solutions for you, however, and the vast majority of small and medium businesses will find great value in some form of cloud services.  A question you should be asking instead is; “what solutions do I need from the cloud?”  Are you looking for email services?  Perhaps you need a content management and employee collaboration tool.  Maybe you have a need for a virtual hosted machine for your site.  Cloud based services give you the advantage to pick and choose the offerings that are best for your company.  For example, many hosts, like myhosting.com, offer a slew of MS based hosting solutions.  You could run an entire Exchange, MSSQL and SharePoint environment for your office.  Microsoft offers similar packages which include both web based and hard copy version of their Office suite.  Google also has productivity, email and shared storage solutions for business, free in some cases.

In essence, the question isn’t “is cloud computing for me?”, it’s “what solution is right for me?”.  Don’t short change this part of the decision, make sure you spend the time, and money, required to select the best solution for you.  This may be the first, and only, time you deal with an IT consultant.

Reduced hardware costs

Buying servers is expensive.  Running servers is expensive.  Maintaining servers is expensive.  Those who have relied on rebuilt desktops to run a small office have no idea the true cost of server ownership.  Simply buying the box and sticking it in the corner won’t do, either.  Servers need to be cooled.  In our current world of 7 9s (99.99999%) up-time you will need redundancy.  Every server needs a sister server in case it fails.  Hardware costs double simply to ensure proper redundancy.  Sure, visualization can help mitigate a lot of these numbers, but servers with the horsepower to host a VM (Virtual Machine) farm are big ticket items.  You still need two of ’em.  We haven’t even checked off network connectivity either.  Suddenly the prospect of bringing in “just a server” really isn’t anymore.

Cloud services make all of this unnecessary.  Hosting providers make all of these hard decisions for you.  Risk and responsibilities associated with server ownership are carried by the provider.  Your monthly subscription costs likely won’t exceed the cost of buying/maintaining your hardware over the short term.

Sleeping easy

It’s said in the IT world that one copy of data is no copies.  Maintaining a good backup regimen is timely and expensive.  Ensuring you have the storage on hand and the expertise to properly execute takes intentional action.  On top of that any backups which remain on-site are destined to be swept up in any unfortunate events which may render them useless.  Using cloud services for your IT infrastructure lets you rest at ease.  Providers ensure that proper backups exist of all your important data.  Many even have solutions that allow your staff to access their files from a variety of smartphones, tablets or any internet-connected computer.  If the unfortunate happens to your head office you could be partially operational within hours.  This kind of disaster recovery is paramount and worth its weight in gold.

Expertise on a dime

As mentioned before, sys admins are expensive.  I should know, I am one.  Our salaries, if you should have a dedicated member on staff, account for $4,000 a month easily.  The more systems you have, the higher this staff will be.  Once you get into specialized software like ECM and Email you’re looking at even more.  Bringing in consultants can cost upwards of $120 an hour.  If you’re planning on having your own servers in house it’s worth doing right.

Cloud services, on the other hand, include all this cost in their subscription fees.  You get access to specialists for specific tools and server needs for nickles and dimes.  Many include phone and 24/7 support, which is a blessing to any small company.  Wading through the tedious process of hiring and retaining a sys admin is no longer your job and because you share them with dozens of other companies, you pay less.  Expertise alone is also a huge value add.

One stop shop

Our world is a world of convenience.  We desire what we want, now, and all from the same place.  Businesses like WalMart have driven the consumer market towards an all in one shopping solution.  The days of specialty stores are becoming fewer and fewer.  Cloud services providers have begun to offer solutions along these lines as well.  Yes, you can still get cloud systems from companies like Microsoft which specialize in their suite of software.  You can also, however, get hosting plans from third parties that include many of the Microsoft software coupled with many other important IT solutions.  Look for hosting providers that bundle website services with storage, email and productivity plans.  They still provide the quality of expertise you get from a “specialist” host but give you greater choice.  Better choice often means better value and lower overall cost.

Latest model

Keeping with trends is expensive enough.  Try keeping your server, software and solutions up to the latest and greatest versions.  Upgrading as frequently as every three years across your whole organization can be expensive.  Any gains you make over time from outright buying software/hardware are quickly lost when you consider this fact alone.  Cloud services providers work hard to ensure their hardware is running the latest spec, cooled the best and running the fastest.  Top tier providers may often be running hardware which isn’t even available to the general market, not to mention a small or medium business.  Providers also update their software much more frequently than a traditional IT department would.  Migrating from one version to another is done in a snap and usually at minimal cost increase to you.  Employees will enjoy working with the latest productivity tools available and your company will benefit from the reputation of being cutting edge.

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Small and medium businesses are popping up all over the place.  Many business types, like literary agencies or medical offices, are naturally small businesses with medium to large scale needs.  Cloud services offer a cost effective and easy way for companies to get the best IT solutions on the market for a fraction of the cost.  It lets them run their business with all the same IT solutions of a large multinational corporation.  Likely the biggest benefit in doing so is there are no real technical prerequisites.  Service providers have staff ready to help you through configuration, setup and day to day use.

Do you run a small business?  You should move to the cloud.

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