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The Whiteboard: Is your business in the cloud yet? It’s time to consider implications

By - Last modified: June 1, 2012 at 10:44 AM

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It is my sixth year of consulting, so I have a substantial investment in information on my laptop. There are client files, reference materials, presentations and, of course, my QuickBooks accounting data.

Though I do back up my data, having an external hard drive or CD sitting on the desk next to my laptop doesn’t provide ideal protection against loss, so I’m joining the thousands of businesses exploring “the cloud.”

Wikipedia defines the term “cloud” as a metaphor for the Internet, based on the abstract depiction of the Internet as a cloud in computer network drawings. The cloud is a global virtual network with a rapidly growing cadre of suppliers of “infrastructure as a service” (IaaS) and “software as a service” (SaaS).

To back up my QuickBooks data, I decided to use QuickBooks Online Backup from Intuit. For a small subscription fee, Intuit downloads my encrypted files to an off-site data center under its control. Now if my home office burns down, my data is secure. QuickBooks backs up the data regularly with no effort on my part.

I decided to store the rest of my files in the cloud too, using Mozy, one of the most-popular cloud data-storage providers. Mozy’s client software runs in the background on my laptop. When it detects a new or changed file, an encrypted copy is sent out to one of Mozy’s data centers.

Cloud data storage has been around for several years, so I’m not exactly cutting edge. However, there are many small and mid-size businesses where someone is backing up data to a tape and taking it home at night, and I know a number of small service providers who rarely, if ever, run a backup. If your data is important to you, cloud backup, provided by a reputable supplier, is convenient, reliable and inexpensive.

Getting better acquainted with the cloud isn’t something that is just for amateur techy nerds like me or for corporate CIOs. The entire direction of software and infrastructure development is into the cloud, so it will affect everything sooner rather than later.

I rarely visit a business that has no fax machine. The same people who don’t back up their files and who print out all their email just won’t give up their faxes. In the cloud, you can have faxes without being chained to a fax machine or your office. Myfax.com and other providers offer email-based fax service — which was, though I didn’t think about it, my first experience in the cloud.

When I need to send a fax, I send an email with attachments via Myfax.com. The receiver gets a fax. When someone sends a fax to my toll-free number, I receive email. The advantages are obvious. I don’t need a machine, supplies, software or a phone line. I can send or receive faxes anywhere on any computer or mobile device. Faxes don’t sit, unnoticed, in a machine.

In 2011, Microsoft announced MS Office 365, a cloud version of the ubiquitous MS Office Suite. The rollout was in response to the success of Google Docs, Google’s cloud-based office applications. Why consider Office 365 or a competitive offering? For a monthly fee — currently about $6 per user for a small business — it offers the MS Office Suite, Web-based email and calendars, workgroup document sharing, instant messaging and video conferencing. You can be on a computer or mobile device anywhere.

SaaS applications offer more advantages. Ever have problems keeping everyone on the same version of software? With SaaS, your team is always in sync, always has the latest version and always has all the updates and bug fixes. Users and IT professionals don’t have to do anything to make it happen, because the provider does it in the cloud.

Ever need to upgrade a server to upgrade software? That will be rare with SaaS. Lower IT manpower and equipment costs may be a competitive advantage for cloud adopters.

Online customer relationship management (CRM) software, pioneered by Salesforce.com, has been around for several years, and now complete enterprise resource management (ERP) systems integrated with CRM are coming to the cloud. NetSuite bundles CRM, ERP and Ecommerce and claims to serve 12,000 companies worldwide. This is a trend to watch.

The cloud isn’t free of issues and concerns. It is important to work with reputable, sustainable providers. Users relinquish responsibility for and control of up-time, and company data is “out there.” Due diligence on up-time and security should be extensive. Wide use of cloud applications and storage might require investment in bandwidth to handle much more data in the pipeline. It might not be time for every business to plunge into the cloud, but I believe it is important for every business to stay abreast of it and consider its implications.

Richard Randall is founder and president of management-consulting firm New Level Advisors in Springettsbury Township, York County. Email him at info@newleveladvisors.com.

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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