Commentary - Without question, “the cloud” is today’s big thing in business IT and communications. Whether its email, applications like CRM and accounting, backup, file sharing, development environments, calendars, conferencing and more, the cloud is transforming IT at businesses large and small, as they move from “on-premise” IT services. For example, companies have been moving their email to hosted Exchange, a cloud service, to reduce costs, improve features, and gain greater security, reliability, mobility and other benefits over managing it on-premise. Many of these businesses, unfortunately, are moving their critical IT services to the cloud without fully understanding the key differences between the three distinct types of cloud service providers, and they could be putting their companies at risk.
Most people are familiar with the personal cloud, which allows consumers to listen to music, chat with friends and share photos, and is generally free or “freemium.” Examples include Google, Dropbox, Apple’s iCloud and Flickr. While all great offerings, consumer cloud services are by definition not designed for businesses, as they lack key elements that businesses need, including security, control, SLAs and more.
Also getting a lot of attention is the developer cloud. Services and platforms such as Amazon Web Services and Windows Azure are two leaders in this category. These are powerful platforms that developers and engineers can leverage to create sophisticated cloud-based applications and services, but they’re well known for being complex and focused on providing infrastructure, rather than complete solutions.
Finally, there is the business cloud, which provides secure, business-grade and often integrated solutions built specifically around the needs of the small and medium business (SMB). Examples include Salesforce, Microsoft Office 365 and Intermedia.
When deciding between each of these clouds, SMBs must understand what the business cloud can do relative to the status quo of more consumer-focused and developer offerings. There is no practical reason for small businesses to manage their own IT when they can get cloud services that offer fewer hassles, better service and support, higher reliability and greater security at lower and more predictable costs.
Migration, security, support
Three factors are critical to the success of small businesses as they move their IT services into the cloud: first, a clean and seamless migration; second, proper security and control; and third, quality, 24x7 expert support.
Selecting a cloud services provider that can handle the migration of your business data for you is critical to your initial success. Unlike the consumer cloud, the business cloud relies on the ability of a service provider to move your data from your current environment (typically on premise servers) to the cloud. Business services are notoriously complex, and good cloud services providers often have teams of experts who specialize in this process, and a select few even offer these services for free. You certainly can’t afford to have hiccups in your business critical services (such as email), so carefully choose a provider that specializes in data migration.
While security is often a key roadblock in the decision around cloud adoption for small businesses, many of the larger cloud service providers have invested heavily in their security teams, processes and technology. When you consider that most SMBs struggle to configure a firewall, the advantage of moving to a service managed by world-class security experts becomes apparent.
With the average cost of a data breach approaching $7.2 million (according to a recent study conducted by the Ponemon Institute), SMBs can no longer afford to leave their data vulnerable on locally managed systems. Just as important is the backing up of PC and Outlook files and folders. What happens to your business if a hard drive crashes, or coffee is spilled on a laptop, or a laptop, smartphone or iPad is stolen? Data loss can occur at anytime. Managing PC and Outlook backup for files and folders on-premise is a complex and challenging process. SMBs should look for providers that offer a solution that is accessible, reliable and that can recover a loss quickly – without disrupting the day-to-day workflow of employees.
Not to be underestimated, support will play a key role in your ability to realize the efficiencies promised by moving to the cloud. In the business cloud, 24x7 support, quick answer times and quality experts are not just provided, they’re expected. If you’re choosing a provider that can’t help you quickly solve issues, you’re putting your entire business at risk.
With email as the most widely used communication tool in business (a typical user spends 134 minutes during each workday on it, according to Osterman Research), ease of migration, top-notch security and reliable support are the first things your company should look for in a business-grade provider.
Cost effective, not free
Osterman Research found that companies can save more than 50 percent in IT costs when deploying cloud resources versus on-premise, all while gaining significant other benefits. While you’re not likely to find a business-grade cloud offering for free, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding one that can deliver real ROI and minimize your overall risk.
SMBs should tread cautiously around “freemium” services. Offerings that deliver a product or service for free, while charging a premium for more advanced features or functionality, are generally missing the critical business-grade elements, such as support, migration, control and security. SMBs deploying these services often end up spending significant amounts of time and energy testing these solutions, and usually end up moving away from them. True business-grade services won’t be a “one size fits all.”
Mobility, compatibility, reliability
Gartner expects over 46 million people globally to work remotely (employees working at home, using a computer that is connected to the computer system in an office; adding in people who work from smartphones, iPads and other mobile devices would yield an even much higher number) this year, and as an SMB, your company is likely contributing to that number. Whether you are in the office, commuting, or working from home, the modern worker needs ultimate flexibility.
Fully integrated mobility solutions are the hallmark of the business cloud. Choose a cloud provider that lets your employees use their preferred device, whether it’s an Android, a BlackBerry, a Windows Mobile phone, an iPhone, an iPad, or anything else. And look for a provider that helps keep your company secure, including by providing the ability to remotely wipe data from mobile devices should they be lost or stolen.
Make sure your provider offers enterprise-grade reliability, but beware: Many cloud service providers will claim to offer 99.9 percent, but these numbers can equate to as much as a full work-day of downtime each year. (Who can afford that?). Enterprise reliability means a guaranteed availability of at least 99.999 percent (that’s less than six total seconds of down-time per week!). Get the guarantee in writing, and make sure you’re entitled to compensation if the guarantee isn’t met.
Are businesses really moving to the cloud?
Earth Networks, provider of the largest global weather, lightning and climate observation networks and owner of WeatherBug, jumped onto the cloud services bandwagon and recently transitioned all of their business communications from an on-premise server to Intermedia’s cloud services. The company is deploying hosted Exchange, hosted PBX and conference bridges, file sharing and collaboration, hosted mobile capabilities, security, back-up and fax via email – all in the cloud. Like countless others across all industries, they realized the ease at which the cloud can provide business communications.
Most businesses are ready to make the move into the cloud – the hard part is deciding which provider can meet the demands of the modern SMB. Streamlining all of your business’s cloud services, such as email, voice, security, backup and file sharing helps provide easy access not only for employees, but remote workers and IT directors as well. Dealing with multiple vendors is difficult – support is more challenging, paying multiple bills is a pain, integrating the services requires extra work if it is even possible. It’s much easier to have a single provider who delivers a one-stop shop for 24x7 support and tightly-integrated services with easy interfaces and control panels for managing and using the services. As you evaluate your business’s current cloud providers, or evaluate moving more services to the cloud, make sure your cloud services provider is truly business grade.
Michael Gold is President of Intermedia, which provides a broad and integrated suite of cloud services to the SMB market and is the world’s largest hosted Exchange provider. Before joining Intermedia, he was CEO of Zlago, a cloud software company he founded and sold to Intermedia. Prior to that, he was CEO of Sphera, a cloud software company he sold to virtualization and automation company, Parallels, where he stayed on as a senior VP.