The cloud’s silver lining: business benefits brought to life

5 Oct 2010

From saving time and money to providing greater flexibility, cloud computing has many advantages.

One way to lift the fog around cloud computing is not to think about it in technology terms but to see it as a way of solving a range of real-world business problems – from cost saving and managing cash flow to increasing staff productivity or improving customer service.

Saving money is attractive at any time but especially in today’s unforgiving business conditions. The cloud uses shared IT resources located in data centres to provide services, so that providers can apply economies of scale and offer services at low cost. More importantly, while there is often some consultancy fee involved in moving, there is no need for the kind of upfront outlay usually associated with upgrading to a new technology. The per-user per-month payment model lets firms keep their costs predictable and under control.

Greater flexibility

The cloud also allows much greater flexibility than a firm can expect from its own IT systems. Any business that works in seasonal peaks and troughs can better plan for busy times when things get hectic, such as a sales drive or for quarter-end accounts. It can scale up to use more processing power for short periods and when those end and the demands on the computing infrastructure aren’t as great, the business can easily scale back to its regular usage and will pay less.

Another reason to consider the cloud is to reduce or remove the need to get caught up in operating technology in the first place. Traditional IT required that an organisation planned to reach a certain level of computing capacity and it bought hardware that was powerful enough to cope with the heaviest workload. In practice, this threshold was seldom reached, resulting in many servers frequently operating at nowhere near full capacity. It would be like buying an office based on the most optimistic version of a business plan, and only using a quarter of the space.

The Irish Internet Association’s (IIA) cloud computing survey identified nine categories of applications that firms could use in a cloud computing model. Collaboration and productivity software scored highest and that’s reflected in the presence of heavyweights Microsoft and Google in this market, with both offering email and document sharing tools over the web at very low cost. While these applications allow more sophisticated document sharing in real time, there are also simpler file transfer tools like Dropbox or for sharing files that are too large to send by email. A growing number of companies are using Skype, the internet telephony application, as a way for staff to keep in touch without incurring massive phone bills. 

Remote working made easier

Working with documents over the cloud also makes remote working much easier, so that staff members don’t necessarily have to share the same office space in order to carry out tasks as part of a team. With broadband widely available at last, they could work from home as effectively as they do anywhere else.

Good customer service has never been as important and there are many cloud tools to help. Organising a business briefing is a good way of meeting clients or prospects and applications like Cvent or EventElephant can manage the logistics of a seminar. Tools like SurveyMonkey are a good way of taking customer feedback quickly and efficiently. Some Irish firms use the business networking site LinkedIn – itself a cloud service – as a medium for marketing campaigns.

More sophisticated customer relationship management tools are also available: is by now a cloud computing veteran and gets a large part of the credit in creating the concept of software as a service. It now provides a range of related business tools through its Appstore. Microsoft is also coming into this market with its Dynamics CRM software now available as a cloud option.

Tasks like data backup may be vital for keeping the business going, but in reality they fall into the category of ‘dull but necessary’. There are a range of local and international providers including KeepITSafe, Host-IT and Mozy offering secure backup services to the cloud. Many of the large telecoms firms such as Eircom are also providing cloud services, so there is no shortage of choice. Initial setup may involve some work but afterwards the backups take place automatically.

Speed is another factor in the cloud’s favour, as it allows firms to react quickly to business demands. One prominent Irish retailer recently moved a large email system over to Microsoft’s BPOS cloud offering in just four weeks. While that was an unusually short deadline, switching to the cloud still took far less time than would be needed to buy and configure servers and software. The firm was also able to handle the project without taking up valuable in-house IT resources, as its technical team was focused on the more strategic task of implementing a new financial management system. The scale of that project, which involved migrating more than 500 users, shows that the cloud isn’t just suitable for small businesses – a perception that has dogged the technology from its early days. 

IT management is another popular candidate for delivery via the cloud, according to a survey by the IIA. The working group that analysed the results speculated that these types of applications may be perceived to be more suited to the cloud because they are easy to deploy. Another explanation was that it’s easier to convince management to move these systems to the cloud and adoption will be more rapid as a result. Examples like this could help to provide the ‘eureka moment’ for company owners to clear confusion around the cloud and bring its benefits into sharp focus.

Silicon Republic has embarked on its Cloud Centre campaign to better inform businesses about opportunities in cloud computing. To visit our Cloud Centre, click here

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic