If you've adopted cloud computing to boost your business results, you're not alone. According to an Angus Reid survey of 1,000 Canadian small business owners, 47 per cent are currently using some sort of cloud computing solution. Technically, cloud computing is any form of web-based, shared computing service. Today, business owners can essentially outsource everything from their e-mail systems to their digital storage space to their office software programs.
Why so popular?
There are many reasons for the cloud boom, including:
- Cost savings. One of the biggest advantages is saving the cost of buying your own IT infrastructure, such as an expensive server. You can rent a range of services instead of buying them up front.
- Frees up staff. Using a cloud computing provider essentially offloads the headaches of running and maintaining certain IT services, ensuring your employees can focus their time on more productive tasks.
- Accessibility. Cloud computing makes life easier for mobile workers as it allows you to access your data via a connection to the web. "As more consumers and businesses adopt tools such as smart phones and tablets," explains Globe & Mail writer Omar El Akkad, "the ability to host data in the cloud and access it from just about anywhere on the planet is quickly becoming vital."
- Scalability. You can increase or decrease the amount of storage you need as your customer base expands, especially important for start-ups wanting to avoid buying servers that may be under-utilized early on and overburdened when the business expands.
- Selective outsourcing. Small and medium-sized businesses don't have to migrate their entire IT departments, but instead can pick and choose what services they want to outsource.
- Greater web presence. A recent Intel Canada study showed that 90 per cent of companies employing less than 100 staff do at least some of their business through the web. Many such firms need to expand their web presence but lack the resources to buy, administer and continually upgrade the hardware and software needed for expansion. Cloud companies are increasingly turning their attention to this market.
New technology sector, new customer concerns
As adoption rates rise, concerns about the use of cloud services have surfaced, including:
- Jurisdiction. If you deal with sensitive data, you may be required by policy or law to store that data on servers that are physically located in certain jurisdictions. Ensure your provider meets that requirement.
- Data security. This includes both fears of hacking and legal access to sensitive data. If a Canadian company hosts its data on a server in another country, can that county's government use local law to access the information? In the U.S., for instance, its Patriot Act gives the American government the right to go into any data in the U.S. and look at it. But because of Canada's relatively small population, some of the biggest cloud computing companies in the world have yet to set up servers in this country. (Canadian cloud companies have figured out a sales pitch. The combination of Canada's brand as a country and its less intrusive rules on access to data has drawn some customers in the U.S. to look at Canadian cloud computing solutions.) Interestingly, for most small companies, cloud computing providers are able to offer a level of security you may not otherwise be able to afford.
- Downtime. Fears relating to the reliability of cloud computing service providers have often been expressed by businesses considering moving to cloud solutions. Providers are attempting to address this concern, with many major ones now offering uptime guarantees, essentially assuring their customers that the cloud service will remain running at least a certain percentage of the time.
- Industry standardization. This new, still-progressing sector lacks universal standards for how clouds should operate. Some see a dilemma - whether to jump into a new, still-evolving technology, or risk missing the boat - which has given rise to the concept of a hybrid cloud, combining private and public cloud services. While small businesses may have the most to gain by outsourcing their IT tasks to a public cloud company, for data that is too sensitive to put on a public cloud, some firms may feel the need to recreate at least some of the cloud infrastructure internally.
Clearly, besides price, there are a number of variables to consider when deciding on a cloud services provider. For companies that deal with sensitive data, the physical location of the cloud servers on which data is to be stored is very important. And if your business is small, you may want to examine providers that rent out computing power, space or bandwidth, so that you can easily scale the amount you need as you go along. The Leadership Council for Information Advantage suggests picking a test case or pilot project to try out the cloud.
The above article is summarized from a four-part series in The Globe & Mail.
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