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Small businesses moving to the cloud: a Q&A
by Jordan Tue, 04/14/2009 - 14:27
Cloud computing is coming to small business, and it brings benefits in terms of price and stability. A number of different services, necessary for running a small business, can run as a hosted (cloud) service. We explore the issue in an exclusive Q&A with Scott Kinka, Senior Vice President at EvolveIP.
Idea Cafe: What is the cloud and how can it help small businesses? What types of services run in the cloud?
Scott Kinka: The Cloud is a metaphor for the service provider's network or the Internet. The concept of cloud-based services is that a service provider supports the infrastructure or application needs of a customer from their network operations center, using the provider's equipment, facilities, software and expertise. The customer typically eliminates the need for on-site servers, software and equipment. Services are "virtualized" at the service provider's location.
Services can include: CAAS (Communications as a service), which includes Hosted Phone Systems and Messaging Applications; SAAS (Software as a Service), like Salesforce.com and Google Apps; and IAAS (Infrastructure as a service), which can include things like hosted network and security services (firewalls, e-mail security, network monitoring).
Is now a good time for SMBs to make the move to the cloud?
Now is a perfect time for SMBs to make a move to the cloud. Cloud services offer SMBs the opportunity to get access to technologies and solutions that are generally out of reach to smaller businesses based on cost and/or expertise. Because services are virtualized by the service provider, these solutions often represent a lower total cost of ownership than attempting to build that solution in-house at the customer location. Most importantly, cloud services are normally offered as a predictable monthly service fee, which eliminates cost overruns and upfront capital, and keeps the service provider responsible for your ongoing satisfaction. In short, cloud services are often a better, faster, cheaper alternative for SMBs to get access to new technology.
What steps do small businesses need to take in order to move their systems to the cloud?
First, the business should identify what it needs. It's impossible to just say, let's move everything to the cloud and flick the switch. There are various types of providers who offer various services that may or may not be compatible. The business should make a list of the areas in their business where they are struggling or areas where they need access to new technology. Then they should identify all of the costs involved in delivering similar services today. Once they rank their needs and costs, businesses should begin to look to service providers who can do more than one thing, or are built on a standards based platform to allow for easy integration into other platforms. Finding a lead provider who provides multiple services often insures that the customer will not be left with a point solution that is its own island.
Second, in order to use services in the cloud, businesses have to be able to make effective use of their internal network to reach the cloud service. Issues on the internal network will affect the use of services located outside it. Ask your service provider if they can provide an audit of your local network and offer suggestions to better work with their cloud based services.
How would you address any security concerns business owners may have about the cloud?
Businesses are intrinsically skeptical about moving their precious data to an off-site provider, but keep in mind, that these cloud based services are in the business of providing enterprise class services, not of providing your information to competitors. Any successful cloud based service will have the necessary security measures in place to ensure that your data and your business are protected. Ask about their security policies. Speak to other customers. Make sure that you are communicating with any cloud service over SSL, VPN or even a dedicated network segment (like a T1) that is connected to the service provider.
Can you share some specific insights from case studies of your customers?
One thing that is often overlooked when considering cloud services is that they are generally intrinsically ready for disaster recovery. And services located in the network will operate regardless of the situation at your office. For example, we had a customer who is located right next to one of the largest apartment building fires in recent memory. The fire was so hot and the smoke so thick that the entire area was evacuated. Our customer had to send their employees home. Because services were located in the cloud, the phones were simply ringing to cell phone and home numbers, e-mail was still flowing to laptops and the business was still operating. Their customers did not know the difference. Had their building been the one on fire, how many of these services would have remained active?
In your experience, what types of businesses tend to use hosted services? Typically, what types of services do they look for?
This is a difficult question to answer because there are so many different types of services that mean different things to different types of businesses. A few situations that are almost always assisted by cloud services are multiple location business or businesses that utilize home or remote workers. In this scenario, the business is always saddled with trying to make the technology at the remote offices or employee homes work as if they are in the office. Services in the cloud are built to offer services to end users regardless of their location. In this case, a home user generally accesses the services in the exact same way as someone in the office. These types of customers look to outsource almost everything. By outsourcing communications to a hosted provider, the remote user can have a four digit extension or direct line with the rest of the office staff. Customers would have no idea that the employee is not located in the office.
Aside from multi-location businesses, any business that is looking to improve productivity through technology is a great candidate. In this economy, everyone wants to do more with less, but most do not have the capital to invest in longer term technology projects that may bear fruit in the future. With cloud services, the investment is minimal and the business can experience the productivity enhancement (and the lower total cost of ownership) immediately.
Tell us more about your company's infrastructure and areas of expertise; what should we expect of Evolve IP in the coming months?
After one year of business operations, Evolve IP has over 195 customers representing over 8,000 end users. Evolve IP offers both hosted and managed (on customer premises) solutions in Managed Telephony, Hosted Applications (E-mail, Online Data Backup & Recovery, etc.), Managed Networks, and Network Security to small and medium businesses and organizations with an average employee size of 20 to 2000. Evolve IP employees 50 full time employees.