Cloud-based services help small businesses reduce costs, and it gives them access to IT services which were once only available to large enterprises. But wide choices in services, security issues and vendor contracts can overwhelm SME IT pros.
Migrating one service at a time to the cloud can be a good start for small and medium-sized businesses/enterprises (SMBs/Es) to use
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IT professionals need the flexibility to expand or reduce their IT infrastructure depending on their business needs. This is always easier said than done. Expanding the data centre infrastructure involves additional expenditure.
And reducing the infrastructure to support reduced costs is even trickier; there are contracts in place which have time-limits and inflationary clauses.
IT pros from small and medium-sized businesses have an even lesser degree of flexibility when making these technology decisions. The IT department is responsible for supporting a wide range of requirements with limited staff. Cash flow is a key consideration when looking at investment, and depending on the type or ownership of the business, the management philosophy may be more inclined to purchase than rent or pay-as-you-go.
With the trend to Web-based orders, management across both large and small enterprises faces challenges when scaling their business. In addition, collaboration and communication services have to be sophisticated when businesses use virtual office facilities or limit their on-premises expenditures and encourage employees to work from home. These services must encompass voice, mobile, email, social media and other forms of communication. They must be secure, recognise the international nature of business operations and be available around the clock, every day of the year.
Cloud computing can rescue SME IT pros who are expected to meet these requirements.
Cloud-based services can help SME IT reduce its capital expenditure and software costs as well as provides the enterprises with a scalable, agile infrastructure that can support SMEs’ seasonal peaks and troughs.
But the implementation of cloud-based services through third-party organisations means SME IT admins will have to manage supplier contracts carefully to ensure that the required services are delivered and the infrastructure operates as required.
Contractual and operational oversight requires IT to exhibit a mix of skills, including contract management and business process delivery and an understanding of the technology. This is important so that the business is not overexposed to managed services suppliers. In addition, IT systems will need to go through orderly upgrades and changes to meet the cost and business requirements of both the user and the supplier organisations.
Some cloud-based service providers addressing small and midmarket users have country-resident services. If the business operates internationally, it needs to ensure that there is access from abroad and operations are not constrained by international dial-in numbers.
SMBs’ guide to migrating to cloud-based services
Voice services and collaboration: Upgrading telephone systems and services is one way for SMBs to start using cloud computing services.
The range of available services can make a small business “feel” like a big business. Starting with digital voice services will deliver voice messaging, call forwarding, conference calling and many other features that, historically, have only existed on large telephone switches. All this can operate with nonattended services, that is, without an operator, helping SMBs save costs on 24-hour operator services.
Using the same infrastructure, IT teams can deliver other communication services such as video conferencing, shared messaging, transparent connection of email, text messages, faxing, file sharing and so on. These services will help employees communicate with other people within the organisation. But, more importantly, it will help them communicate with customers and suppliers as if they were always available from a single office location, when, in fact, they are dispersed across the country or travelling abroad.
This infrastructure also supports mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop devices -- giving the small business the flexibility of a large enterprise.
The next stage in using cloud-based services -- as a natural development of communications services -- is to set up collaborative work teams that share project data, and that interact in viewing and amending reports, drawings and contracts from any location. Communication services and collaborative working can be implemented in phases as the business requires new features or service capabilities.
Some vendors offer these services under the banner of “managed services”, but they use a cloud-based infrastructure. The advantage of such services for the SMB IT is that software releases are always current and security is built in.. IT pros only have to consider how much of the services they need on an ongoing basis and which services they would like to dip in and out of. For example, video conferencing might be a service they’ll use now and again rather than as a constant, continuous service.
Order processing and accounting systems: Placing the ordering and accounting systems into a cloud environment can be a good idea but it requires careful system testing.
It is sensible to have common systems for Web access for customers and for internal sales and order administrators, but migrating from existing in-house systems to a new cloud-based infrastructure requires close management and training.
Vendors and cloud service providers may be demonstrating how easy it is to set up systems and processes on the cloud-based infrastructure, but in order to maintain operational features that differentiate one company from another IT will have to customise standard systems. Consequently, IT managers should not underestimate how much attention they need to give the migration process. The net gain will mean that systems are maintained on a current system infrastructure and relieves IT admins of the challenges of system and software upgrades required with in-house solutions.
The security and systems’ back-up and data recovery procedures should mean that there is minimal to zero downtime in case of a systems failure.
There will always be contractual periods, but cloud computing gives SME ITs the ability to change the system volumes to respond to seasonal peaks or to manage growing or decreasing business levels more easily.
“Cloud-like” services for SMEs that are highly sceptical of cloud computing: For companies that do not wish to move to the cloud with their core systems for various reasons including security, other options exist that can provide them a cloud-like experience without risking their business. Such options include:
- Security services that ensure that all email in and out of the organisation are safe, with all the malware cleared out by the cloud security service.
- Data back-up and recovery services to ensure that not only is the main data centre backed up on a regular basis, but that all laptops and other mobile devices for travelling executives are also secured.
These cloud-based systems use the new high-speed back up processes that reduce data storage capacity. This eases one of IT’s biggest headaches -- handling backup tapes. With data stored in a separate location, SME IT managers can meet the back-up best practices as well as remain compliant with regulations.
Recovery processes can be introduced across the network. In instances where a company requires full disaster recovery services, the cloud service vendor will be available to re-host the applications on their infrastructure. But IT pros must carefully assess the service terms.
While cloud-based services are relevant for all sizes of business, the decision to move to an external infrastructure is always a business decision. SMEs can now have facilities available to them which were once only available to large enterprises.
But it is important to keep a watchful eye on what the cloud service provider is delivering and at what price. Ensure that someone is appointed with the responsibility to manage the delivery of the services within the organisation.
A vigilant approach and a step-by-step process towards using cloud-based services is the best way for SMEs to become a part of the technology that will define the future of the IT.
Hamish Macarthur is the founder of Macarthur Stroud International, a research and consulting organisation specialising in the technology markets. He is a regular contributor to SearchVirtualDataCentre.co.UK.
This was first published in July 2012