Understanding Cloud Integration for Small Business

Thursday Jun 5th 2014 by Pam Baker
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Ready to jump into the cloud? Before you do, you need to understand cloud integration—the little-discussed secret sauce that makes your business processes work together.

It's hard to imagine a small business owner today who hasn't heard how moving business processes to the cloud saves money and lets you access data from anywhere. And that you'd be a fool not to jump on board the cloud computing bandwagon.

To hear cloud services vendors tell it, moving everything to the cloud is a no-brainer, and it's so easy-peasey that you're crazy to keep buying, installing and maintaining your own software and servers. You might have even heard that cloud integration—getting all of your various cloud services to play well together—is also a simple thing.

Conversations with some cloud vendors can sometimes sound like this: save money, they said. An application programming interface (API) makes cloud integration a snap, they said. You can lay off your IT people because you won't need them with the cloud, they said. Those things can be true but they aren't always. That kind of buzz is only a half-truth.

According to small business analyst Laurie McCabe, cloud integration vendors need to a lot more to simplify the integration process for small business. She outlines her findings in a blog post entitled Cloud Is The New Normal for SMBs—But Integration Isn’t.

If you're the least bit foggy on how to navigate your way to profits using the cloud and integration, read on. We're replacing the buzz with a foghorn to guide you to safe and profitable shores.

What is Cloud Integration?

In basic terms, cloud integration means getting all of your software systems—the ones you have in the cloud and the legacy software you have installed on servers in your office—working together. After all, you want your accounting system to communicate effectively and efficiently with your CRM software, right? But, this being technology, there are many not-so-simple permutations of cloud integration.

Does it mean integrating your legacy systems and data with the cloud? Does it mean integrating applications and data within the cloud? Does it mean developing a hybrid system where some of your stuff is in your office, some of it resides in the cloud, and all of it is integrated?

"Two of the biggest issues we see is that 'integration' can mean just about anything, and that APIs are sometimes not as functional as advertised," warns Eric Schlissel, CEO of GeekTek IT Services. "To some vendors, integration simply means that one system can email another. In other instances, systems can communicate at the API level, but then they only use a subset of the APIs' full capabilities."

Yikes, what's a small business owner to do? Your first mission is to make sure any cloud vendors you're considering spell out exactly what they mean by cloud integration. Make sure you get a specific, highly detailed definition. Then measure it directly against your own business needs and technological capabilities to determine its ultimate worth to you.

Not All APIs are Created Equal

An API specifies how software components should interact, but it takes a programmer to make it actually work. If you do not have programming skills you or don’t employ someone that does, an API will be of little use to you. You may need to consider the cost of hiring—or commissioning—a programmer to evaluate APIs and to handle the programming once you select a product.

If you have programming skills, don't be fooled by a slick vendor demonstration. Use a free-trial period to test whether an API actually does—or does not—successfully integrate software, systems and data.

"It's very easy for a vendor to say that their platform integrates and that they have an API, but sometimes their platform's actual functionality tells another story," says Schlissel. "Keep in mind that when vendors run demos of their systems, it's under the best circumstances in a fully controlled environment. The systems will always appear to be flawless and feature-complete."

What if you're still not sure about true integration capabilities offered by a cloud vendor? 

"Be very careful about fluffy marketing around the cloud, and have a qualified IT service professional evaluate the true integration capabilities of the cloud systems that you're considering," advises Schlissel.

One other word of caution here: before you sign a contract, make sure you know who owns the data once it goes into a provider's system, and whether your data will be usable if you ever decide to change cloud providers. Sometimes cloud providers turn your data into gibberish to make moving your data to a competing vendor difficult if not impossible.

"Small business owners need to make sure that they understand the vendor's decommissioning process. In other words, how their data will be disposed of after the contract or term of service ends," explains Neena Daniw de Leon, marketing lead for Azeus Systems Limited, an IT solutions provider. "Will they be able to export the data and transfer it to another service? That is a major consideration for cloud services."

You'll also want to know if the vendor has copies of your data and if so, you'll need to know if and how they plan to use or destroy that information.

How to Deal with Custom Software in a Cloud-based World

Yes, there are tons of truly great cloud apps out there. But that doesn't mean you want to give up that perfectly good custom software that has been serving you well. Especially if you think cloud-version apps are too lightweight for your needs (and let's face it, many of them are pale shadows of their former on-premises versions).

So you're ready to move to the cloud and integrate everything, but you really don't want to give up that custom accounting, inventory or other software you love so much. Now what should you do?

"This is likely the hardest step a small business faces in its evolution to becoming a cloud-based company," says Todd Wahl, president and CEO of Unified Systems Management. "Abandoning the old software for something new often results in process and procedure changes, and the changes often make the small business take stock of how the new system can help them be more efficient and effective."

"However if abandoning your physically installed custom software is not an option, you can find service providers who will let you rent or lease a virtual server on the Internet where you can house your application without issue," adds Wahl. "This gives you the best of both worlds: a cloud-based legacy application."

When to Remove a Cloud Provider from Your Short List

Cloud providers are not interchangeable, and price is not the only difference between them. Know precisely what you're looking for before you go shopping so you can narrow your list to contenders that truly fit your business.

"It's always important to identify 'deal breakers' up front so you don't waste time investigating a solution that simply won't fit," says Michael Sutton, vice president of security research at cloud vendor, Zscaler.  "Define your business processes and make sure the cloud vendor can adapt to meet your needs, not the other way around. Ensure that business critical processes such as reporting and workflow still fit with your business when you're not in physical control of the solution."

Have a checklist in hand for all your requirements before you shop. Don't hesitate to cut a provider from consideration if it falls short on meeting your requirements.

"Compliance requirements can be an immediate deal-breaker," says Sutton. "Say, for example, that your industry's data-retention standards prohibit you from storing data internationally. If your cloud provider can't guarantee where it physically stores your data, which is not an uncommon scenario, you simply won't be able to use that solution."

Your Options: Cheap, Cheaper and Costly as Hell

As mentioned earlier, price is not the true differentiator between cloud providers. Some services appear cheap, but their price calculations are so vague that you're soon headed for sticker shock. Others throw in many extras, but you find out later that you're paying for stuff you don't or can't use.

Some of the cheapest of the lot are so bare bones you will likely have to hire expensive consultants to use them, which sort of defeats the purpose. Others provide just what you need, but come at different prices for no apparent reason.

But there's one thing you should never do in order to get a super low price. "Do not settle," says Sutton.

"A variety of factors will no doubt motivate you to move to the cloud," he explained. "Cost savings will be among the drivers, but it should not be the only one. Use the cloud to improve your business by gaining efficiencies that simply weren't within reach before. And make sure that your business is better off as a result of the transition."

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!
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