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Moving the collaborative experience to the cloud

SaaS office tools are a fast-growing market segment. What are the implications for IT implementers, the benefits of cloud scalability and versatility, and the potential drawbacks?

SaaS office tools are a fast-growing market segment across industries and company sizes. We'll discuss the implications for IT implementers, the benefits of cloud scalability and versatility, and the potential drawbacks in terms of offline access.

When personal computers first emerged, each person worked on a given project and then passed their work to the next person who, in turn, added their work and passed the project along to the next, and so on. Reviews and approvals worked similarly, passed from one reviewer to the next until all had seen, commented, and shared their opinion. Given busy schedules, the process could take weeks.

Then came cloud

Beyond all the technology-based economies of scale that make cloud so compelling are the many ways that it enables enhanced collaboration between disparate workers. Even more compelling is the fact that people no longer need to work asynchronously, though that may be what they're accustomed to. They can work on the same document simultaneously.

With earlier file and record locking conventions the common assumption was that each document could only be worked on by one person at a time. When Microsoft first introduced the Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS), this was the case.

Simultaneous editing is now available to Microsoft Office 365 users, and the Microsoft Online suite of applications (available at allows users to collaborate across the cloud for free. Documents stored in either Microsoft OneDrive or Sharepoint Online, both components of Office 365, can be accessed by multiple users who can all edit them at the same time. Onscreen indicators show users who is editing what portions of the document they are sharing. All OneNote users in a meeting can take notes simultaneously, too.

Most recently, Dropbox has integrated its cloud storage into the Office 365 suite in similar fashion. Users can now select to save their files locally, on OneDrive, on Sharepoint Online, or on Dropbox directly from their "Save" dialog. These are powerful expressions of one of the most important core values of cloud computing.

Managing offline productivity

Most users today have more than one device that they use to do work. How do they manage storage of their files?

If their work files are stored on one device, they're not available on the others. They could upload files to a cloud storage service such as OneDrive or DropBox, and now they can directly access those from their Office applications.

But what happens when they board an airplane that doesn't have Wi-Fi? Will they have to remember which files to bring with them and download a copy before they depart?

No. Users have the option of setting up a local copy of what they have stored in OneDrive or DropBox, which automatically synchronizes with the cloud service. Whenever a file is added, changed, or deleted in the local copy the same change is made to the cloud copy. When the two are not connected, they synchronize the next time they do connect.

This replication capability also represents perhaps the easiest way to migrate data from local storage to the cloud. Simply configure the replicant folder on the local device and move all of the desired files into it. The cloud service then automatically replicates all of the files stored in that folder to the cloud, making them instantly available to all of the user's other devices with proper authentication.

New tools

Cloud providers are rapidly introducing new tools that enhance the collaborative capabilities of these platforms. DropBox, for example, recently introduced DropBox Paper, a shared collaborative workspace that make it easy for teams to collect assets, design and ideate documents, with creative tools to make them look great and keep them accessible to all users.

Microsoft also has a new entry, Microsoft Teams, a chat-based collaborative environment in which users access applications and documents on-the-fly. Teams is now a component of Office 365, making it instantly available to those users.

Anend to application oppression

Perhaps the most powerful impact of public cloud has been the ability to obtain software as a service (SaaS). The care required for hardware maintenance pales in comparison to the burden placed upon any company that manages its own software applications. Updates and security patches for a widely installed software portfolio - especially across a globally distributed organization -- can be a nightmare.

SaaS puts an end to all of this. Users simply connect to use hosted applications. In some cases, they may run a locally loaded app to gain access to cloud-resident data. When that app needs updating, it is handled automatically in a manner completely transparent to the user. This allows IT personnel to remain focused on the company's core mission, rather than maintaining tools.

Another value of SaaS is that it is accessible by a much broader community of companies. Applications that once required massive platform investments now require only a client device and a subscription.

SaaS tools also scale along with their subscribers, with no need for new hardware or software even as needs evolve. Many SaaS platforms offer an a la carte selection of modules to support growing businesses.

SaaS customers also enjoy access to wider knowledge bases with which they can compare their own performance. The most common example is in the realm of data and network security, where SaaS providers access global security knowledge bases to improve their ability to identify threats. Many of their customers could never afford such access by themselves.

Disconnected but not cut off

As the popularity of SaaS has grown, software developers have carefully engaged the concern around what happens when a SaaS user cannot reach the Internet. Many have adapted to provide an offline alternative that replicates any work done during the offline session and updates it as soon as the user reconnects.

Where does this leave IT pros?

IT professionals have been concerned about the cloud's impact on their jobs and companies for over a decade. Those who were concerned that they would lose product business were proven right. Customers purchase far fewer servers and storage devices today. But the reduction in bottom line profit has been far less severe.

More progressive IT implementers have realized that, where they used to combine hardware and software products, they now combine hardware, software, and services. The professional who understands how to combine cloud services and make their security and operational protocols behave well together is of vital importance to customers, and will remain so.

The best survive-and-thrive strategy for IT implementers is to innovate and integrate constantly. Learn more about cloud-based collaboration can lead to innovative results by watching our G&J Pepsi-Cola Bottlers video.

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