A host of emerging and ongoing trends—cloud services, big data and mobile devices—promise to transform your small business technology infrastructure in 2014.
By The Small Business Computing Staff
If the industry insiders and experts we surveyed are correct, 2014 could be the year that "the cloud" takes over from the local PC/server as the primary platform on which small businesses run. Throw in the continued march to mobility and more "smart" devices able to interact with the Internet directly, and it's shaping up to be the year that the PC becomes a niche device.
Of course, brand new technologies rarely materialize out of nowhere, so most of the major trends to watch in 2014—namely in cloud computing, data analytics and mobile—have origins that go back years. But new offerings will bring these technologies to the tipping point, where they will impact your business technology in more ways than you might have guessed.
Small Business Tech Trends to Watch in 2014
Cloud Computing Outlook Gets Sunnier
As if we weren't already dependent enough upon the Internet to get anything done, cloud software and services will weave their tendrils into even more aspects of your business infrastructure. Indeed, a year-end survey by j2 Global, a provider of business cloud and digital media services, focused on the priorities and wish lists of small and medium-sized businesses for the New Year.
The survey found that almost 88 percent of respondents say they plan to, or wish they could retire one or more legacy business technologies. And nearly 60 percent of survey respondents expect to save money by using cloud services in 2014. Here's a quick look at cloud services ready to serve small business.
Online office suites: Microsoft Office is likely one of the last locally installed programs on your PC. But as businesses upgrade from Office 2010 (now three years old) to Microsoft Office 365, they'll find the cloud-based versions of the applications have the same look, feel and features of their desktop counterparts, with the bonus of access from any PC with Internet Explorer and convenient online SkyDrive storage.
And Microsoft isn't the only office-productivity player in the cloud: Google Apps for Business, Zoho Business Apps and others will let you cut the cord to your PC office suite.
IT services in the cloud: Thanks to Salesforce.com and the other software-as-a-service pioneers, small business owners have grown comfortable with individual applications being cloud-based. But what about the back-end stuff, like your mail server, data backup and even phone PBX?
A growing number of providers offer these essential services to small businesses. And with Microsoft ending support for Exchange 2003 in April, this year may be the time to take the plunge if you are still running that platform. For example, Intermedia is a leading provider of enterprise-grade, cloud-hosted IT services for the small business market, and its Office in the Cloud provides email, voice, file sync and share, and many other cloud services that are all fully secure, integrated and mobile.
On the phone front, Voxox can replace your aging, expensive PBX with a cloud-hosted "virtual" phone system that delivers a range of convenient features such as "local" phone numbers that allow you to have phone numbers in various area codes (a draw for customers who prefer to use local businesses), vanity numbers, departmental extensions, call forwarding, call recording, conferencing and more.
Data storage and backup is essential in any business, and typically requires a server. Exablox offers its OneBlox architecture that combines an on-premises appliance with cloud-based management (called OneSystem) that eliminates the need for dedicated servers to manage your storage. OneBlox can be installed and available to users in less than five minutes with zero configuration, according to the company.
Even disaster recovery has moved to the cloud, with several vendors offering Disaster Recovery as a Service (DRaaS). This lets companies replicate not only data backups, but their entire virtual environments, and store them at a cloud-based, offsite location. If disaster strikes, replicated data can be restored and infrastructures run in the cloud as virtual machines.
Service provider Unitrends sees DRaaS improving in several ways in 2014, including faster recovery times and the pairing of an on-premises backup appliance with a cloud-based disaster recovery solution to allow customers to rapidly recover onsite or from the cloud as the need dictates.
Bringing IT all together: Of course, a collection of disparate cloud and on-site software could be a giant cluster-fail. "Often, small businesses that have invested in ad hoc purchases that result in a fragmented cloud landscapes with multiple cloud solutions that don't talk to each other—which is the opposite of what they need," noted James Griffin, vice president of Alliances, SAP North America.
"One of the more important trends is the collision of cloud solution adoption with the need for company-wide integration IT." Griffin urges business owners to evaluate the infrastructure on a broad, holistic scale—even though you might only be in the market for a module or two right now.
Big Data for Small Companies
Big data analytics used to be too expensive and too complicated for small businesses, and it required a data science team's help. That's no longer the case, and some experts predict that 2014 will be the year that small business owners finally begin taking advantage of big data analytics.
"Small and medium size businesses don't often realize how much useful data is at their fingertips and how they can make it work for them," said SiSense CEO Amit Bendov. "Just because you're a small business, doesn't mean you can't analyze your big data. And these days, SMBs often have massive amounts of data."
For example, Bendov points out that you can analyze previous years' sales along with social media and a variety of other data sources to determine which items you should promote most heavily online and in-store, whether or not it's advisable to put certain items on sale, and how to stock your store and warehouse. SiSense's Prism software offers analytics and more, including interactive dashboards, the capability to manage and "mashup" data, and to uncover and explore associations in your data that you may have missed.
"We have a customer who was able to increase his margins significantly when the company's big-data analytics revealed certain items sell even when not on sale," Bendov explained. "Now he know there's no need to slash prices on those items during the holiday season."
Venkat Viswanathan, CEO and founder of LatentView, concurs. "Data analytics is a huge trend, and visionary small business owners will take advantage of analytics in 2014," he opines. "Various cloud platforms are making analytics accessible—it is no longer something that only large corporations can afford."
He predicts that small businesses will look into predictive analytics because of the tremendous value it has for companies that can't afford to take guesses that could potentially lead to losses. "For many years, companies have built data platforms and analytics infrastructure with a significant emphasis on hindsight: look-back reports that help businesses check their rear view mirrors," he notes.
However, in 2014, there will be increased acknowledgement that companies need to start developing insight and foresight. "With better insight and a forward-looking predictive view, businesses are less reactive and able to be more proactive and shape their outcomes, which can really take small businesses to the next level."
Desktops? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Desktops
Granted, desktop PCs will be with us for quite some time. But it will become harder and harder to justify purchasing a desktop for you or your employees unless they require a workstation-class PC for CAD, high-end video production, and the like. Several trends conspire to make the desktop PC obsolete—with the obsolescence of the traditional laptop not too far behind.
Fast mobile processors: Increases in speed from the Intel and AMD mobile CPUs and graphic chipsets mean that the vast majority of employees don't need a desktop processor to get their work done. So the number of business owners opting for a clunky desktop over a mobile laptop for their employees will continue to shrink.
Laptops that convert to tablets: The growing number of "convertible" computers—with swivel-and-fold screens that turn the laptop into a tablet—make the laptop option an even more attractive choice. Examples of convertibles include the Acer Aspire R7, Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro, and HP EliteBook Revolve. As prices for these premium models start to drop in 2014, the case for such a flexible laptop over a desktop becomes even more compelling.
Cloud-based everything: The growing power and features of today's tablet devices, combined with the unending availability of local- and cloud-based business apps, will lead many business owners to conclude that some employees don't need a PC at all, in any form. Since no actual computing is going on locally, you don't need the computer; all you might need is a tablet or ChromeBook—any device with Internet access.
Internet-aware devices: Another continuing trend that promises to push PCs to the side is "the Internet of things:" smart devices that are Internet-aware and don't need a computer to connect to the Web. Multifunction printers (MFPs) have been on the front lines here, with technologies such as Brother Web Connect, Dell Document Hub, and HP's MFP apps and HP Connected service that enable employees to scan documents to and print documents from cloud storage services right from the printer, without having to touch a PC.
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