One of the most rapidly growing fields in technology in recent years has been cloud technology. Yet many people still don’t really know what it is. In fact, a survey conducted in 2010 by 7th Sense Research revealed that a smaller percentage of small businesses even claim to know what cloud technology is than actually use it. There’s clearly a disconnect, with many using cloud services and not even realizing it, while many others just have no idea about them at all. But understanding cloud technology and how it might help your business will help you make an informed decision on whether it can work for you.
What Is Cloud Technology?
There’s a good chance you’ve used cloud technology without even realizing it. Cloud technology is a broad term that is still being firmly shaped to define its exact limits, but in general it refers to services that take processes that would normally run on your individual computer or on an attached server, but instead handles them completely separately, in “The Cloud.” The cloud can be accessed from any computer, anywhere, anytime, freeing you from being tethered to one specific computer or network. Everything is handled at a central location. A common analogy is the functioning of utility companies: you don’t have to generate your own power or pump your own water, because it all comes from a central location, and you can get access to it from anywhere. So it is with cloud technology.
If you’ve ever used web-based email like Gmail or Hotmail, then you’ve used cloud technology. All your email is stored separately by Google or Microsoft, and you can access it from any computer. More recently, though, cloud technology has been used for much more than just email. There are several types of cloud computing you can use, including both infrastructure and software. On the infrastructure side, there are services that will provide storage space for your data on the cloud, allowing you to access it from any computer connected to the Internet, rather than only on your office network. Software on the cloud uses web-based utilities to do your work, without having to use a computer with licensed software installed; again, any computer accessing the Internet can pull up the utilities and get to work.
- Cost. In many cases, cloud computing can save you money. If you use the cloud for infrastructure, then you don’t have to buy servers to store whatever data is on the cloud. Likewise, if you use cloud software, you save on having to buy expensive licensed software. For example, Google Docs is a free cloud service, whereas Microsoft Office or equivalent software packages will cost you to license per user.
- Flexibility. With cloud technology, you generally only pay for what you’re actually using. If you’re using a certain amount of storage space, you pay for that amount precisely, and not for excess space you’re not using yet. With cloud software, you only pay for users you actually have using the software. You don’t have to buy extra licenses ahead of time, or wait for a new one; you just go ahead and add or remove users as you need to—and it’s much faster than installing a whole software suite every time you set up a new computer. The cloud grows along with your needs, never charging you for more services than you’re actually using at the time. And it will still be good no matter whether you have just 5 people, 100, or even 1,000.
- Mobility. As mentioned earlier, you can access the cloud from any computer with a web browser and access to the Internet. If you have people spread over a wide distance that all need to use the same data or software, cloud technology makes that easy. And if you want to take your work with you, from your work computer to your laptop to your home computer, the cloud will work everywhere you need it.
- Privacy and Control. You are not in complete control of your data, because you’re working through a third party on everything. Your data is not necessarily on site, and can be accessed without your permission, particularly at the request of the government. To what degree are you comfortable leaving your data off-site with another company? Do you know what will happen to your data if you choose to stop using the cloud service or move to a different cloud provider?
- Power and Performance. In general, cloud tools are less powerful than their equivalents. For example, we earlier mentioned the difference in cost between Google Docs and Microsoft Office. Google Docs, however, lacks many of the advanced features that Microsoft Office has. Find out what tools you will and won’t have access to with cloud-based software, and how that will affect your business. There are still some things you might need to do internally, while others can be left to the cloud.
- Data Loss and Outages. If something should happen to the cloud provider, whether an outage or even a failure of the company, what happens to your data? A problem with the service’s system could leave you without access to your information, or even result in permanent loss of select information.