Two trends are destined to dominate the small business technology arena in 2016—the cloud and security. And as small businesses add more cloud services, the need for security becomes more apparent. But even small business owners who want to keep their IT resources in-house will invest heavily in security this year.
In addition to these two mega-trends, the growing usage of mobile technology will also exert a growing influence among SMBs. Let's take a look at what you can expect.
3 Essential Small Business Technology Trends
1. The Cloud and Small Business
As NASA images reveal, clouds cover two-thirds of the planet's surface at any one time. While cloud-based technology services can't yet compete with that number, they are edging closer.
"The cloud is poised to overtake on-premises deployment in 2016 in areas such as collaboration, file sharing, and marketing automation," said Laurie McCabe, co-founder and analyst at the SMB Group.
This is part of a larger trend in small business IT: leave the technology to the specialists.
"More businesses are choosing managed cloud-service providers to maintain the underlying technology, deal with the headaches, and address maintenance schedules," said Scott Whitright, senior product marketing manager for the public cloud at Rackspace. "This lets business owners focus on their customers and growing their businesses."
Larger or more tech-savvy SMBs also look to the cloud for analytics capabilities. This lets them crunch numbers, isolate trends, and highlight zones of potential competitive advantage. When built and maintained on-premises, such systems can cost many millions of dollars. But the cloud makes analytics systems available to a wider audience, and you can even find free versions (though they come with limited feature sets or restricted use clauses). Examples include IBM Watson, Tableau, SAP Lumira Cloud, Microsoft Power BI, and MicroStrategy Analytics Express.
"Anybody can sign up, upload a spreadsheet to such systems, play around with them, conduct some analysis, and see important trends emerge," said McCabe. "SMBs should tinker with them, and find the one that works well for their needs."
Of course, the cloud also has its downside. As traffic volume grows, bandwidth may become an issue. For everyday traffic volume or for predictable traffic spikes—such as seasonal demands or the launch of a new campaign—the solution is a bigger Internet connection. But moving a large volume of data—either to or from the cloud—calls for a different approach.
"Continued struggles with Internet bandwidth will lead to a boom in data migration services and devices," said Alexander Negrash, vice president of marketing at CloudBerry Lab. "They offer a faster, cheaper alternative for transferring large amounts of data."
Take Amazon's AWS Snowballservice for example; Amazon ships your small business a device onto which you place large amounts of data. You send the device back to Amazon, and the company then transfers the data to the cloud. This can be a smart move for companies making the initial move to the cloud or even for weekly backups—if your company has a lot of data volume.
Small businesses can also lighten the load by backing up their data files in-house and then transmitting the data offsite at a more leisurely pace. Alternatively, cloud backup providers offer Backup-as-a-Service (BaaS).
"Data backup is not something that many small businesses have the time or resources to manage, and more service providers are offering services to fill the gap," said Negrash.
Beyond data storage and data backup, you'll find more complex services offered in the cloud and increasingly tailored to SMBs. Infusionsoft, for example, provides CRM, sales and marketing automation software, and it targets firms with fewer than 25 employees.
2. Trends for Small Business
"First the bad news: Small business owners better get ready for more cyberattacks. While the hacks of large companies gain all the publicity, criminals are using ransomware and targeting SMBs to quietly extort funds at alarming rates," said Kevin Watson, CEO of Netsurion.
A type of malware that locks a computer or computer system, ransomeware renders the data and systems inaccessible until the victim pays the ransom. If left unpaid, the perpetrator typically threatens to either delete the data or release it to the public.
"Ransomware preys upon the unsuspecting but, rather than suck data out of a network and remain undetected, it asks for the cash up front," said Watson. "The best defense against this threat is tried-and-true best practices for security such as employee training and backup."
Security for a small business can get complex very quickly. Few small business owners want to deal with firewalls, anti-virus (AV), anti-malware, intrusion detection systems, intrusion prevention systems, and more. When you then factor in rampant data growth, the data security field looks more like rocket science.
"Many small business owners feel overwhelmed, confused, and completely inadequate to deal with the magnitude of the seemingly endless potential for digital security breaches that could wreak havoc on their businesses," said McCabe.
What's the simplest way for a small business to stay secure? McCabe recommends identifying the data that's most important to your business and focus on protecting it. "Whether customer records or employee records, determine what data represents your biggest risk—legally or financially—if compromised," she said. "Focus on that data, and take the steps to protect it wherever it resides."
If you use, or plan to use, third-party cloud providers, be sure to select your vendor carefully. Small businesses should avoid using consumer-grade tools or tools with inadequate security. Take the case of a plumbing business using some kind of cloud-based electronic payment system. What if the provider's system—used by millions of SMBs—gets hacked? That could be catastrophic for a small company.
"Many small businesses use products like Dropbox for storage or Gmail for email," said Jack Smith, CEO of VeriFyle. "Dig a little deeper to understand what you're getting in terms of security, especially if you have a small company. A data breach could put you out of business."
3. Small Business Mobile Technology
Deploying mobile technology is one way to reduce IT complexity because, in many ways it encapsulates many ongoing trends; it puts the technology into the cloud, and it eliminates the need for internal IT. SMB Group surveys indicate that 59 percent of small businesses view mobile technology as critical to their business, with 70 percent expecting mobile apps to replace at least some of their current business applications.
With the trend toward more mobility seeming inevitable, the difficulty for SMBs becomes which mobile apps to add. McCabe suggests looking at how your customers and employees want to interact with your company on a mobile device. Do they want to look up information, place orders, talk to someone, or make support requests? Prioritize mobile apps and features that satisfy the most pressing needs. A law firm might simply need a mobile-friendly website, while a retailer would need far more sophistication.
"Upgrade your cash register so that you can accept payments from smartphones," said Stephen Sheinbaum, founder of alternative finance company Bizfi. "And every small business should be thinking about how technology can help them get paid faster via electronic invoicing."
Keep Small Business IT as Simple as Possible
The level of technology deployed depends upon size and the type of small business. According to SMB Group surveys, small businesses that view technology as critical to improving business outcomes outpace their peers when it comes to business growth. But the lower-down the SMB-size scale you go, the less apparent this trend becomes.
"The bigger the company, the more likely it is to recognize that technology is the way to improve business," said McCabe.
Smaller companies are better off keeping things simple and working back from core functions rather than trying to keep up with much larger competitors in all departments. For example, your website might be able to get away with looking hokey when compared to Fortune 500 companies. But if your site isn't mobile-friendly, you may be in trouble.
Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.
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