Is cloud computing for me?

Is cloud computing for me? A question I am being asked more often. My answer is always the same – it depends.

There is a lot to know about cloud and navigating can be a minefield. Here is the vital information you need to consider before making a decision:

1. What sort of cloud solution do I need?

There are several components of a computer system, especially a business network, and so there are several aspects you could move to the cloud. Consider each of these elements in isolation, and as a part of the whole system:

  • Email – Microsoft Exchange server particularly is commonly being moved to cloud hosting, rather than having to maintain on-premise Exchange server software and licenses. Particularly cost-effective for smaller businesses and geographically diverse businesses
  • Backup – online backup means you no longer need to remove tapes or disk from your site, you simply check periodically that the software is working and the backups are happening automatically.
  • File Storage – systems like Dropbox have paved the way for online document storage and retrieval, with the latest file-store solutions allowing editing documents right in the browser, or syncing with your local PC for you to edit in the more comfortable locally-installed software
  • LOB Software – specific software providers offer hosted or online versions of their previously ‘locally installed’ software, including Sage, QuickBooks, Act!, Salesforce CRM, Microsoft Dynamics and Microsoft Office. Be aware that often the online version is feature-limited when compared to the traditional on-premise version, although features are improving with every iteration.
  • Desktops – your whole desktop experience can be moved to a cloud-based server, so everything that you see and do is happening on a remote computer. Some companies use Remote Desktop or Terminal Server solutions for remote employees already, and others use Remote Desktop Connections or similar software such as LogMeIn and GoToMyPC to remote control their office computer from home.
  • Telephony – running a telephone system in the cloud gives many new features that just weren’t possible or practical with more traditional telephone systems, and offers you telephony services with the flexibility of working anywhere that we are now used to with email.

2. What are the advantages?

Cloud computing does offer benefits depending on which solution you implement and your specific current challenges. Often the advantages of cloud solutions can be summarised as one or more of the following:

  • Costs – you can sometimes save money in the long run but often the lure is to move to a pay-monthly subscription model of operating expenditure, rather than capital expenditure up-front and equipment/software refresh costs on a 3/4/5-year basis (depending on your IT plan).
  • Data Security – having someone else look after your data means that you don’t have to worry about it.
  • Speed – cloud solutions are hosted in data-centres with high-speed internet connections and are able to leverage the volumes-of-scale of Virtualisation; running several ‘virtual’ servers on top of fewer ‘physical’ servers. This allows more than one company some shared space on a bigger, faster server than they would otherwise be able to afford for themselves, and can reduce the need to monitor and maintain equipment because someone else is doing this for you. You can also ‘burst’ your usage, so if you only stress your server once a week, you aren’t paying for exclusive 24×7 access to a server fast enough to cope for that 1 hour you actually need it to be fast. The idea is that someone else will be stressing the server at a time when you aren’t, so the resources are utilised but not over-or under-used.
  • Convenience – instead of only being able to access your accounts data from 1 PC in your office, you can be working at 11pm from a cocktail bar in the Bahamas, should you feel the need, whether from an iPad, Android phone or a Macbook.
  • Flexibility – typically cloud systems are ‘limitless’ in their expandability, and since you typically pay per-user, you can increase or decrease your subscription in line with your hiring and firing.

3. What are the costs?

Anything you do is going to cost you somewhere! So what are the costs to be aware of with cloud services?

  • Monthly costs – all services are going to be billed monthly, typically per-user or per-gigabyte or a combination of other metrics depending on the service.
  • Setup costs – transferring your existing data and existing setup into a cloud-based solution is going to need some organisation and management, just as it would if you were replacing a single PC or all of your servers. Whether you are able to do this yourself, or have to pay for someone’s expertise (hint hint) to help you, there’s a cost involved.

4. What are the hidden costs?

What you won’t be told about Cloud solutions are the hidden costs, so make sure you are familiar before you make your mind up that life in the clouds is going to be dreamy.

  • Bandwidth – low internet connection speeds and transfer limits will immediately bottleneck your business. Even relatively good speeds by internet standards (20Mb download) may show itself as inadequate when you move your services from an unlimited 1000Mbps local LAN connection to a limited internet pipe. Even an enterprise-grade leased line solution may only be cost-effective in your solution say 10Mbps, which is still only 1% of the LAN connection.
  • Latency – the hidden gremlin of the internet – how long it takes for information to get there and back. Typically this isn’t a problem for web-pages or even streaming videos, but any latency can be very bad for real-time applications such as telephones and video-calls. Fax transmission is so time-critical that most VoIP companies won’t support it at all, and those that do have limited success.
  • File Size – if you are using an online file-store, how large are the files you use on a daily basis? If they took twice as long to open, would that significantly slow you down in your working day? How about if they took 10x as long to open? A few seconds delay is typically OK, whilst even 10 seconds or more could cause major frustrations for a busy power-user.
  • SLA – Service Level Agreements – how devastating would an extended loss of internet connection be for you now? How devastating would it be if you were using a cloud solution? Consider the response and fix times of the internet company you choose
  • Backups – your cloud solution may have built-in backups meeting your needs (multi-version, retention times etc). Your company policy may not allow for all of your critical data, backed up or not, to reside in a single place or with a single entity. What happens if your chosen provider has a major outage and loses your data, and their backups? What happens if you stop paying the bill for whatever reason (maybe your debit card expired) – how long have you got to retrieve your data before it is permanently deleted? Do you need to pay another cloud company to backup your data in another place?

5. What are the dangers?

Pretty much all of the advantages of cloud-based computing can also be dangers if not considered fully.

  • Costs – paying monthly might be ideal for you. Paying more might not. It will depend on your attitudes, upgrade requirements, cashflow, accountant and a plethora of other elements. The advice is to calculate the overall costs based on your normal renewal times, which for most small businesses is 4-5 years. Paying up-front or even on a lease-purchase basis may work out cheaper in the end
  • Data Loss and compliance – if you don’t know where your data is, how can you stay in control of it?
  • Security – most companies have a password policy which requires you to have a secure password, and some even force you to change it every so many days. Be aware of any that don’t and of your users using insecure passwords despite this (eg “Password1”) – the security of your company data depends on it!

6. What do you recommend?

Our general advice is as follows:

  • Most companies can use Cloud-based Microsoft Exchange for their emails without too much difficulty, but if there are more than 2-3 users you definitely need to consider your internet connection speed. There are just a few specific situations where on-premise makes more sense. Office 365 offers superb value for money and we are able to advise and assist on setups and migrations.
  • Trial whatever online service you are considering, and check what features are missing / limited before you commit.
  • Consider the data security implications of what you are considering, possibly consider the Data Protection Act and your obligations. Could you change provider if you needed to? Is your data encrypted and secure in-transit across the internet?
  • Always consider the end-to-end solution, what could stop working and the implications to your staff and your business. What can be done (and how long it takes) should things go wrong. Will you be in a premium-rate phone queue? Will you get an engineer on-site? Would a shorter fix-time justify a higher monthly price?