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In todays hype-laden world of IT marketing it can be difficult to separate the genuinely useful nuggets of information from the hyperbole, and none more so than in the area of cloud computing. There are however some genuinely useful services out there, and some can lower costs and increase your utility of computing with little or no fuss to implement.

Introduction

There is no denying that the march of ‘the cloud’ is apparently unstoppable. It will, for many small to mid-size companies, eventually come to represent a significant force to be reckoned with as already many systems and software providers have stopped providing versions of their software and services that you can install on your own systems and run in-house. It seems to be that the march towards a largely cloud-based infrastructure is inevitable. Everyone seems to be investing heavily in for both ease of maintenance and, from the vendors perspective, a move to a steady and regular subscription-based revenue model.

Advantages of cloud systems

Being a ‘cloud system’ is just marketing speak for a server or service being hosted in another companies buildings and accessed via the internet, instead of you having a stack of servers blinking away in your own comms room, leaving it to them to worry about manging and upgrading the systems and replacing hardware. The advantages, in theory at least, are many:

  • Low to no technical administration
  • No costly onsite hardware to purchase or maintain
  • Automatic scaling of systems
  • Often a low and linear cost – if need more space or users accounts, the cost goes up in small increments depending on your actual usage
  • Most reputable service providers have built in redundancy and backups
  • Simplicity. Most backup systems are deliberately easy to set up and manage
  • Offsite storage. Backups are stored offsite by default
  • Access to your systems from anywhere.

Drawbacks of cloud systems

it’s not all plain sailing when it comes to the cloud, for a comprehensive run down of the pros and cons of cloud systems see our article on cloud backups, which covers the issues in more detail.

The main issue organisations face is their obligations under data protection legislation and regulatory compliance, as the location and management of your data is very, very important. Often organisations are restricted from using cloud-based services due to where the data is stored by the provider, either by legislation or self-imposed compliance.

Can I move everything into the cloud right now?

Currently there are many pros and cons for moving parts of your infrastructure into cloud-based systems however there are currently three areas which seem to provide a compelling case for adoption:

  • email systems and groupware
  • file storage and file sharing
  • backups.

cloud servers

Nearly every aspect of your operations could be evaluated for moving into the cloud, from your telephone systems, networking services to any number of software systems however these three areas have been tried and tested, and perform so well that it makes us question as to why companies, particularly start-ups who are unencumbered by legacy systems, would choose not to have these systems in the cloud.

Email and groupware

E-mail and messaging systems which were traditionally managed in-house such as Microsoft's Exchange Server, a system which sends, receives and stores e-mails, calendar information for appointments, tasks and other groupware information has now moved seamlessly into the cloud in a system called Microsoft Office 365.

For most businesses the transition is quite straightforward and from a staff member's perspective there is little or no difference to their experience and use of the e-mail systems - if anything it brings with it increased functionality and ease of use, with better external access to a variety of software and collaboration resources and better integration with mobile devices.

It moves your ownership of the system from a boxed product, whereby by Exchange Server is installed on your own systems and is managed in-house, to a monthly or annual subscription where you access Microsoft’s online systems upon which your e-mails are stored and managed. From our experience to date, it appears to be a very smooth and well-run system. This has not always been the case however as when it was first released it was cumbersome, expensive, and largely badly communicated to the businesses community to which it would provide most benefit.

office 365

Microsoft have addressed these issues over the past few years and Office 365 for most businesses now offers a very real alternative to running email systems yourself. The total cost of ownership is less and they can provide resilience through their vastly larger infrastructure with multiple-redundant data centres. They have also refined the management interfaces to bring it from a difficult, and sometimes esoterically challenging, technology to use to one which power users rather than purely technical staff can easily setup, configure and manage themselves on an ongoing basis – if you are willing to dedicate some time to learning the terminology and technology and have someone you can call if things go wrong.

There are a number of companies which provide similar cloud-based messaging and groupware products such as Google's G suite, Zoho office, SalesForce CRM, and many others however Office 365 offers a tried and trusted option with the added advantage of seamless integration into Microsoft's own ubiquitous productivity suite, MS office. This comprises Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint and other productivity tools found in nearly every modern business.

File storage

Office 365 also offers access to OneDrive, a cloud-based file sharing platform which replicates the functionality of an in-house file server. It allows the storage of files on Microsoft’s servers as if they were stored locally, and provides additionally sharing and collaborative benefits and further integration with other Microsoft products.

cloud files

Again, there are a number of companies which provide on-line centralised sharing of company file resources, the most famous of which is DropBox which is also a worthy service, however as ever there are a number of pros and cons with integration into Microsoft’s existing ecosystem the most obvious advantage.

Online file storage offers a number of advantages, not least ease of collaboration with external parties. File sharing extranet systems used to be fantastically expensive and complicated, and often insecure, and only allowed technical staff to administer access to the system. Now all you need to do is right click on the files or folders you wish to share and supply a valid email address for those you want to give access to. This ease comes with its own data-security headaches of course, but for those who know what they are doing it makes collaboration simple.

As with email management capacity planning and scaling your systems is handled automatically – you never need to worry about your server filling up or upgrading your hardware. Backing up your data should still be a consideration and managed in-house, as backups provided by all of the main providers are sketchy, but the inherent reliability of the systems means that your backups are mainly for compliance and file recovery purposes, with disaster recovery only a remote requirement.

Backups

We cover the topic of cloud backups extensively in our post “Backing up to the cloud”

This is an area where the low cost, simple and voluminous aspect of the cloud is ideal, pending sufficient bandwidth. The software tends to be simple to administer, and as the destination of the data is offsite by default it has disaster recovery built-in, though your mileage may very when it comes to restoration times.

What else is the cloud good for?

There are now on-line providers of most systems and services, offering a subscription, or ‘Op-Ex’, cost model which provides constant updates and access to the latest versions of the systems available.

The area is still maturing with many offerings not quite ready for production use, particularly processing intensive applications. For instance, architectural practices will be hard pressed to find any cloud-based system offering the functionality of standard design or CAD-based packages despite many of these vendors offering cloud-based services and versions of their products. Often these cloud-based services are simply file sharing systems dressed up in a variety of guises as many are keen not be seen unable to provide some level of ‘cloud’ based offering.

Things such as collaboration, project management, on-line analysis and data processing, CRM and sales automation all benefit from the cloud model. Networking services and authentication are now entering the mainstream as cloud services, traditionally only really reliably available as an in-house server, through Microsoft Azure an offering which piece by piece is attempting to move every aspect of your IT operations away from your comms room and into Microsoft’s global datacentres.

In time, unless there is a compelling argument not to, nearly all of the average SMEs infrastructure will eventually be hosted outside of its offices, further decentralising the traditional office model.

Conclusion

For most businesses, data protection legislation notwithstanding, there are a number of quick wins in terms of moving the key infrastructure items of emails and files into the cloud and definitely so for start-up businesses. Most businesses would be well advised to familiarise themselves with the cloud and what it has to offer as it will inevitably become more and more of our working lives as time goes by.