Cloud computing offers a wide range of benefits to SMEs and its growing popularity, which dominated the headlines in 2011, looks set to do the same in 2012. In fact, it’s hard to find an IT service provider that isn’t extolling the virtues of running applications, accessing servers and storing data in ‘the cloud’.
Cloud computing can help SMEs in four important ways, as it offers an enormous amount of flexibility, as well as greater agility, more effective collaboration, and the ability to gain greater control over your expenditure.
Under a traditional IT model, many SMEs have found themselves locked into a multi-year investment, even though they had no way of knowing when (and whether) they would need extra resources to meet the changing demands of the business. And when additional resources are required, there is all the hassle of ordering the equipment, along with all the headaches of delivery, installation and implementation. Once the infrastructure is purchased and set up, you are tied to the capital investments you had made up front. There is no ramping down the services even if your requirements have scaled down.
By comparison, cloud computing can offer much greater flexibility, since it allows IT to be consumed as a service, just like electricity or any other utility. A reputable cloud vendor will typically have all of the equipment and functionality that you need, ready and available, which means that you’ll never need to be hampered by a lack of resources, and can therefore expand your business much more quickly and easily, and with much less risk.
There is also the added agility that cloud can provide; this is clearly a key benefit to consider for certain sectors in particular. For example, it is important for property management firms to have the ability to scale up their resources for a large project, but then to scale them down again once the project has been completed.
Cloud also makes collaborative working much easier, with products like Microsoft Lync now able to offer a number of innovative and flexible tools that will help employees to communicate with each other more effectively. In fact, with just one click, it’s now possible to see where individual employees are working, whether they are available, to send them an instant message, to initiative a voice or video call, or to share a document. Benefits like these have resulted in the increasing adoption of unified communications solutions to improve collaborative working and productivity.
Collaborative working benefits all companies with multiple offices. One of our clients, a property services company, has 200 employees spread across six offices throughout the UK. The company is divided into five business units with members of these teams in every office. With operational teams spread across six locations, technologies that allow these team members to work collaboratively provide the business with two major benefits. Firstly, it allows the teams to function much smoother operationally, with employees working together on proposals, reports and planning for instance. Secondly, it helps to foster a sense of unity and common identity across the disparate locations. This motivates staff, increasing productivity and enhancing the company’s brand and internal communications.
Another key benefit of cloud computing is the control that it gives you over your expenditure, since you only need to pay for the operational costs. Microsoft Exchange ‘in the cloud’ provides a good example of how this works in practice. Imagine that you need to add another 100 users because your business is growing. With cloud, the email accounts, licences and computing resources can be added the day you request them. Similarly, if you no longer require these accounts, they can be quickly removed. You only need to pay for the licensing and computing resources that you use. Cloud essentially removes the capital costs that you need to establish the IT infrastructure so you consume them as a service and pay for the operational costs.
Even if you choose to implement a ‘straightforward’ cloud solution like Microsoft Exchange, however, you’ll still need to think carefully about the role of IT services. This critical ingredient will play a key role your cloud computing success, since your IT systems will still need to be integrated and managed properly in order to derive the greatest value from your cloud computing investment.
If you’re considering a move to the cloud, you need to remember two key points. As we have seen, it is perfectly possible to outsource the provision of some or all of your IT – whether infrastructure or applications – but ‘service’ and ‘management’ of these IT provisions remains your responsibility, and you will need to allocate resources to make sure your IT function is still performing as it should do.
Furthermore, there is no need to simply replicate your old IT model in the cloud. Indeed, the cloud enables you to think bigger. Cloud computing has democratised technologies which used to be the preserve of large enterprises, and made them more accessible for SMEs. Think about how you might take advantage of that.
In order to gain the greatest benefits from the cloud model, IT services need to be at the centre of any cloud computing strategy. With the right approach, you’ll be able to transform simple IT ‘provision’ into an agile service that frees you from legacy in-house IT constraints.
Without a doubt, the additional agility and flexibility that cloud can provide can make a big difference to the bottom line, especially as cloud can provide you with the flexibility that you need to ramp up and down your IT services – quickly, from the moment that these commitments start or end – so that your costs can ‘flex’ alongside them. In the face of challenging market conditions for SMEs, agile IT services like these can be extraordinarily valuable, and could even make the difference between success and failure.
Jon Milward, Director of Managed and Support Services, Northdoor, the IT consultancy and solutions provider www.northdoor.co.uk