The Cloud and Smartphones for SMB

Preparing for sunshine, guarding against rain

The Cloud and Smartphones for SMB

In the modern, no-rest-for-the-weary business world, the IT benefits of "the cloud" appear irresistible: lower costs of data storage, less management of hardware and few software maintenance requirements. From Box.net to Google’s Business Apps, firms have leveraged these advantages in a variety of models to attract businesses.

Gartner, a technology consultancy, predicts that in two years 20 percent of companies will have eliminated all IT assets and shifted entirely to cloud providers and software-as-a-service hosts. By 2013, it expects the cloud computing market to be worth over 150 billion dollars.

This is no wispy, high-in-the-sky cloud we’re talking about.

But a leap of faith doesn’t quite encompass the notion of sending an entire business’s technological infrastructure into an off-premise environment—especially for small to medium-sized enterprises that lack the resources to shift without hampering operations.

However, two broad schools of thought are addressing the transition: 1) Ride the ever-changing tide of the centralizing technology and adjust procedures on the fly; and 2) Devise a company protocol for full utilization and implementation.

If the goal is to eliminate intermittent IT hassles and employee confusion, it’s hard to argue that the former is a smarter way to go.

Cloud-ification jumping-off points

Email is the common first transition to the cloud. Employee trust and buy-in are some of the keys to getting cloud-ification off the ground. Remote access (and oftentimes no VPN) and negligible download times for mail should begin to displace normal wariness. Reservations will always exist, though. It’s obvious that managers will need constructive training and effective feedback channels for the transition to be successful.

It’s also typical for a document management transition to follow email deployment in the cloud, and may even be deployed concurrently. Few mistakes can derail the fluidity of business and the sanity of an afternoon more than working on the wrong version of a document. So by managing one file, in a shared server, that updates real-time as changes are made, businesses eliminate this costly hassle.

This also prevents the need to search back through emails for the "last" version, as the current version is the only one that’s available.

What about the mini clouds—our smartphones?

Most mobile email clients can integrate fairly seamlessly with cloud servers, yet CRM and SFA legacy systems may be far more complex. The advantages of being able to execute real-time update sales cycle stages, deliverables and forecasts speak for themselves, but the return on investment when considering the entire integration effort can become murky.

New businesses will have an advantage as they can build these crucial systems from scratch; whether older businesses choose to make the shift will largely depend on the nature of their sales cycle and products. Yet, choosing not to streamline operations rarely results in long-term advantages.

Regardless, adding smartphones and tablets to cloud servers doesn’t come without cost. Intel calculates an extra server is needed for every 600 smartphones or 122 tablet computers sold. Apple alone has sold over 25 million iPads since its release in April of 2010, a rate of about 87,000 per day.

Clouds seem friendly, but are they safe?

Mobile phones transmit proprietary information and don’t enjoy the security luxuries of hardwires and "walled gardens" whereby a network is physically unreachable by an outside computer. This complex problem has a simple answer for businesses: Know and work with the people who do security the best.

A core paradigm shift of cloud computing is that trust element: that another company will store and protect all of your proprietary information, whether it’s in a remote underground server or flying over the invisible wires of cellular communication. That shift is, and will be, one of the biggest hurdles for managers to accept and to monitor.

Which is never to say that customers should let down their guard—even with cloud providers. Terms of service—outside of security and access—will be critical. Cloud customers will need to be vigilant that they retain first and sole control over the rights to their data.

A "cloud" functions as a good moniker for the state of the cloud computing market: a lofty goal with borders and shapes highly susceptible to the shifting currents of business. What is standard today could be archaic tomorrow. Perhaps the most important aspect of cloud computing is simply working to keep your business above those winds of change.

By Caleb Garling