Endless possibilities: Cloud computing can transform business
How can cloud computing make life easier for businesses? LAURA O'BRIEN looks at ways it could transform our work culture.
Cloud computing can offer brand new methods of working, if we take the opportunities it gives us. With the ability to connect to data and software from work no matter where you are, new work patterns can emerge, allowing for more flexible lifestyles without sacrificing productivity. Not only that, but the infrastructure can also help overcome unpredictable obstacles, such as the cold snap last winter that forced many of us to work from home, or the volcanic ash cloud in 2010. This connectivity can also improve efficiency immensely, potentially making it much quicker to do business.
Guido Marchetti, senior account manager for MJ Flood Technology, believes it could change the culture of how Irish businesses operate.
“Traditionally, we would have all liked to see our employees trudge in at 8.30am or 9am to sit at their desk and we would want to see them to know that they’re being productive,” he says. “However, I use cloud services on a daily basis and it allows me to be an awful lot more proactive. With tools like Presence, straight away my boss can see when I've logged into the machine so he knows if I'm not up and around even though I'm not in the office."
Cloud-enabled devices can allow employees to work from anywhere, once there is an internet connection. "Even if I've left my laptop back in the office, I can just go to my home PC or my iPad, and access all of the systems need," says Marchetti.
An increasing amount of business software is becoming cloud-enabled. One such example comes from Dublin-based firm Big Red Book. Its online accounts software has now adopted the Microsoft Windows Azure platform, bringing Big Red Book's services to the cloud.
"When people are using accounting software, there's an export to Excel on a regular basis and they're using Word for invoice layout, so there's a seamless link there as it is," explains Marc O'Dwyer, managing director of Big Red Book. "The natural progression was to link it with Office 365 to give clients who use Big Red Book seamless integration with Excel, Word, Sharepoint, Lync and all the other features that come with 365, giving small businesses greater power, which, up to now, has only been available to larger firms."
O'Dwyer maintains that this integration creates greater efficiencies straight away, cutting down processing time and allowing the business and its accountant to operate much faster. "For example, the small business owner might be going to the bank looking to get a loan. Previously, the process could have taken two or three days before the business owner gets an answer from the accountant.
"Within the space of a half an hour or an hour, the accountant can dial in and have the answer for the small business to get back to the bank."
O'Dwyer also points out that, by using Lync and Sharepoint, employees can share documents for quick access, rather than trying to print them out or getting them emailed to where they are.
Speeding up processes
Essentially, what access to the cloud can offer is new tools to speed up old processes. And it's not only software and storage that offer new benefits through cloud computing, but also communications. Unified communications (UC) is a concept that aims to fuse tools such as email, telephony and videoconferencing into a single platform to reduce costs and help teams work better together. Cloud computing has been regarded as a major enabler for UC, offering an infrastructure to support it.
"PBX is another area of growth and momentum that we're seeing in the market with a lot of interest from firms," says Jeremy Showalter, information worker lead at Microsoft. "For them it's challenging the paradigm of having their voicemail system here and IT over there, which don't work together."
Of course, these new tools pose challenges of their own for firms. Security is one such obstacle. As it becomes easier to access data from anywhere, companies need to ensure that sensitive information is not leaked. Many cloud providers will have their own security measures in place. Alternatively, businesses can consider a private cloud option. Companies also need to implement strong security and encryption policies for their data in case an employee loses their connected device.
Another issue involves the effect on work/life balance. As employees are always connected to work, businesses need to recognise that they need to be able to disconnect and focus on their personal lives, too. However, the potential for the cloud to change the workplace is limitless and if we allow it, it could make it easier to run a business in Ireland today.