What the Cloud Means for Business Owners and IT Professionals
I was watching television the other night and saw some rather esoteric technology commercials. The advertisements made statements like not being able to hack what you can’t see, and had very pretty animations about tying some factory in a foreign country to a sprinkler system in the United States. In the next scene there is usually a person in a business suit or a smart looking tech guy who looks happy as a result because he or she is apparently making or saving money from this technology.
But what does it really mean when technology companies talk about leveraging the cloud? I am going to try to shed some light on this topic, as it affects both the business owner and the IT professional running the technology for the business.
Cloud computing has been around for a much longer period of time than most realize. It has gone through a nice re-branding in recent years however, and grown exponentially in terms of stability, robustness, and product offerings. The introduction of smart phones, laptops, and tablets has dramatically changed the way we work and opened some of the most impactful avenues of how large and small businesses use the cloud.
The cloud is a simple way of saying that instead of running a piece of software on a local machine or server, the same piece of software runs on shared remote servers accessed via the internet. Until fairly recently, the business standard was to physically own (or rent) expensive servers that did things like run your website, host your email system, along with managing CRM's or custom business applications. In fact you may know companies that are still running on-premise servers to run any of the above applications.
The cloud on the other hand can not only run all of these applications, but run them more reliably, securely, and faster for a significantly lower cost. So in a way, these esoteric technology commercials are right--the cloud can help you save money and make money. Let’s look at exactly how this could happen, even if you are a small to medium sized business.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Why the cloud is superior in most cases to on premise servers.
No Expensive Hardware to Purchase. One server can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000.
No Regular Hardware Maintenance. Servers break and they most certainly can crash. When this happens you may need new components or a whole new server.
No Expensive Up Front Software Licenses or Updates. Generally cloud platforms include all the most recent updates as part of the monthly or yearly fee.
No Need for a Skilled IT Professional to Maintain Smoothly Running Servers. If you are an IT professional this can be a good thing, and I will explain why later.
Better Security. Who do you think has better security, a small team of IT professionals managing local servers, or a company like Google who employs thousands of the best and brightest along with the best technology infrastructure in the world? In other words, if a hacker was hell-bent on breaking into a system, who do you think they would have more luck with? In the industry we call this standing on the shoulders of giants. This even goes for smaller web hosting companies compared to giants like Salesforce, Amazon, and Google.
Better Reliability. As with security, partnering with a giant makes downtime a rare occurrence. Not only do they have a better infrastructure, but they are better equipped to quickly handle any issues that might cause an outage or downtime. This also means that updates are automatically installed without you having to do anything. With the cloud, you are generally using the latest and best version of the software available.
Accessibility. As with security and reliability, the giants can offer a better user experience than a couple of on-premise machines can offer. What this means is that your cloud users will experience faster loading times, better use of bandwidth, access from anywhere and from any device. This can be very hard to accomplish with a couple of servers sitting in one location. Companies that offer great cloud technologies also put an incredible amount of time and human capital in making the best user interfaces possible. Unless you are a billionaire on a personal mission, this is generally impossible to compete with.
Innovation and Ease of Use. If you have ever had the misfortune to be talked into building custom software, you know how expensive that process can be. What’s worse is the monthly price tag that comes with maintaining that system, and then the even bigger bill when it comes time to upgrade the same system. If you are really unlucky then you have experienced building such a system, only to have the person who designed it, and the only one truly familiar with it, disappear on you. This rarely happens in the cloud because the companies that design the software have huge commitments in keeping the software up and running and improving it incrementally. Cloud software is their core business.
Data Integrity. Data integrity, or safety, is one of the most compelling advantages of the cloud. If you haven’t embraced the cloud yet, you might be stuck in FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) about the safety of your data in the cloud. You might think that your data is safer on a machine in your office or in a colocation that you rent. You might worry that big companies or the government are reading your emails. Let’s tackle the security issue first--there is no way that you can secure a local machine better than Google, Amazon, or Salesforce can. Do you have 24/7 security on premise, do you have highly trained teams constantly looking for hackers, do you have specialized hardware and encryption to thwart would be thieves? Do you have multiple world wide redundant data centers that also plan for disaster recovery? The giants do, and they take security and data integrity very seriously.As far as anyone scanning or reading your data this is also a non sequitur. The companies that provide cloud services could not do so if their clients thought they were reading their stuff or selling them out. For this reason these issues are addressed in no uncertain terms with legally binding SLA’s (service level agreements). In fact the giants have gone to the mat repeatedly in order to protect not only your privacy but also their core business. The cloud is safe, and in fact, much safer than on-premise solutions. If you don’t believe me then look at companies worth billions of dollars like Genentech, Whirlpool, and Virgin America, just to name a few, all who trust the cloud.
Cost and Value. This is the straw that breaks the on-premise versus cloud argument for almost everyone. Security, reliability, accessibility, data integrity and innovation aside, the cloud just costs less and provides more value than on-premise solutions. The cloud model is simple; instead of paying a lot of money up front for hardware, and paying even more ongoing for maintenance and bandwidth, you generally pay a simple flat fee per user per month. No maintenance, no expensive surprises, no upgrades, and often no contracts--it just works. Many companies will also guarantee a certain level of uptime (Google guarantees a 99.9% uptime with Google Apps). Standing on the shoulders of giants means letting specialized technological wizards, some with seemingly infinite resources, do the expensive dirty work for you so that you can focus on your business.
So, how does this affect the real world business owner and the real world IT professional?
Business Owners Win in the Cloud
Small to medium business owners (1-750 users) share many traits in common. They are overworked and wearing many hats at the same time. It’s not uncommon that they also wear the IT hat as well. They ultimately manage the books and often sales, and are constantly the ones paying to keep the business afloat. They are often responsible for making sure they get that big contract or keep their customers happy. In short, a small business owner is the ultimate jack of all trades, and having to worry about their technology, or worse, having their whole company go down because of technology is a constant worry. Finally, they wish for more time in a day so that they can focus on their core business.
The cloud, and proper implementation of a proven cloud strategy that includes email, productivity solutions, CRM, marketing, and voice, addresses many of these issues. In fact if you look at the most successful business owners, what they have in common is that they have leveraged the best cloud technology available.
If you are a business owner that identifies with anything mentioned above, take a moment and imagine if your systems, whether from email to CRM to marketing to phones just worked, all the time, with no ugly (and costly) surprises. You would be happier and actually have the time to work on the things that you need to. You employees would be happier because they could do their jobs, and they might start thinking you were some sort of genius for making their lives easier. This is the cloud, and the kicker is that it’s probably less expensive than what you are doing now. Many reputable cloud partners will also offer lifetime free customer support as well.
IT Professionals Win in the Cloud
If you’ve been doing IT for businesses for any period of time, you’ve probably come to realize that your job is at best thankless, and probably more often filled with stress because you are constantly being blamed for things that are largely out of your control. Putting out fires can become a terrible cycle, leading to unhappy business owners and employees questioning your value because every time something goes down it is apparently your fault.
If this rings a bell, then the cloud is your best friend. Ten years ago it was totally acceptable that 100% of your time was spent in maintaining on-premise systems that were key to the business that you were working for. Now however, much of this has been commoditized and automated in the cloud. If you’re still maintaining an email system then that should be the first thing to go. Not only will your employer be saving money going cloud, it will also free up quite a bit of your time from managing that finicky server and dealing with employee help desk issues. Let the giants do that--you have better things to do, things that actually add value to the business that you’re working for and more importantly to your career. Competing against the giants on things that they’ve already mastered like email, productivity solutions, and CRM is a losing proposition.
So what exactly is your value in the world of the cloud? Let’s consider this situation: as a forward thinking IT professional you’ve recommended a solution like Google Apps to replace your on-premise Exchange servers. Just like that you have 30% of your day free, and everyone from the boss to the receptionist is a lot happier (most of them use Gmail personally anyway). Now it’s time to start focusing on work that builds real value to the business, instead of putting out fires.
So now what? Implementing and customizing the CRM should be your next task. If the current CRM system that you have is working fine, then now you have the time to do all the things that you need to to get it functioning at 100%. If the system is not working well and perhaps totally outdated, then you have a great opportunity to lead the way and design and admin the new cloud system, whether that’s Salesforce, Zoho, or anything in between. When it comes to CRM a whole career can be built between crunching data and constantly optimizing a robust and feature rich system.
From here there are many paths to go. You could embrace the cloud and be the ambassador to huge gains in productivity, cost savings, and ultimate reliability. If this was Dungeons & Dragons, you would be somewhere between the wizard who fixes un-fixable problems to the cleric who heals the entire business and gets it making money again. Ultimately your client will respect you for having their best interest at heart and giving them platforms that they probably thought were out of their reach. As a smart IT professional, using the cloud can expand your career by leaps and bounds, instead of killing it by not being able to offer these solutions.
This might have been a lot to absorb if you haven’t already embraced the cloud. The small steps that you can take like putting your email and productivity solutions in the cloud will be a massive improvement from your current on-premise or hosted alternative. Once you accomplish this step and reap the massive and most basic benefits of the cloud, the incredible possibilities of the technology will open up to you. Be like the most successful businesses and stand on the shoulders of giants. You will find taking your business to the next level will not only save you money but make you money, and let you have more fun doing it.