Cloud Computing Tips for Small Business

by Jill Billhorn

Cloud computing can offer your small business big benefits – as long as you've done your homework. Here's what you need to know to get your small business ready for cloud computing.

Cloud computing technology offers both time- and money-saving benefits, which makes it a great fit for small business. As cloud computing benefits become more tangible, more small businesses are moving to the cloud. Still, as with any technology, you don’t want to jump in without proper preparation. 

First, it is important to recognize that there are several fundamentally different approaches to cloud computing, including:

  • Public cloud:  The cloud infrastructure is made available to the general public or to a large industry group and is owned by an organization selling cloud services.  Most commonly used services here are application-specific -- for example, Salesforce.com or Microsoft Office 365 -- and pricing is often on a simple, cost-per-seat-per-month basis.
  • Private cloud:  The cloud infrastructure is operated solely for one organization. It may be managed by the organization itself or by a third party, and it may exist on premises or off-premises.  CDW’s Cloud Computing Tracking Poll found that most IT decision makers, in SMB as well as other markets, would prefer the private option.  However, the private option requires more knowledge and capabilities to manage, so getting there is a challenge for many organizations, and it is not for everyone.

Cloud computing has a lot to offer, and for small businesses with limited resources, public cloud services offer especially attractive benefits.  For example, using applications in the public cloud can help address networking issues without requiring small businesses to invest in their own servers or expand their IT staff. 

With public cloud services, businesses pay only for the seats or capacity they use at any given time, which is ideal for small business IT budgets.  However, before making the move, small businesses need to be sure that they have a clear picture of all that the cloud entails, and then determine whether it is the right solution for them. 

Make a Cloud Computing Plan

The availability and cost of public cloud services makes starting so easy that many IT departments discover some of their employees are using them before the IT team even has a plan.  However, a plan -- even a simple one -- is essential to get the most value from cloud services.  Look at how your IT staff spends its time and budget, and consider cloud services that will take pressure off them.  For example:

• Software management: Is your business challenged by support and management requirements for widely used applications?  A cloud-based service such as Microsoft Office 365 usually includes support and certainly eliminates the requirement to do patches and upgrades at every client device.

• What is the current state of your data storage?  Are your storage needs close to exceeding your physical capacity?  According to CDW’s Cloud Computing Tracking Poll, storage services are one of the most commonly used cloud applications.

Some businesses, as their servers near end of life, consider moving at least a significant portion of their infrastructure requirements to the cloud -- the variant of cloud called infrastructure-as-a-service, or IaaS.  Comparing the cost of using IaaS versus the cost of owning and managing data center equipment is a more complicated calculation. But transferring less critical items, or backup data, to the cloud can help reduce the time you spend managing less important data and avoid having to upgrade onsite storage.

It’s important to understand that cloud computing is not a one-size-fits-all solution.  Each business is unique, with varying budgets and capacities, so your business may need a custom solution.  The unique requirements of small businesses make cloud computing customization a key selling point to companies that may be undecided about cloud computing.

Factor In Cloud Security

Cloud computing security is one of the big unknowns for companies.  According to the CDW Cloud Computing Tracking Poll, 41 percent survey respondents noted “security concerns” as the top factor hindering adoption of the cloud.  Data security breaches show no sign of slowing down; as a result, some businesses are reluctant to store sensitive, business-critical data in the cloud. 

When it comes to security and cloud computing, small business owners and/or their IT professionals should consider layers of security.  It may mean tightening up existing security or adding additional layers to match the cloud provider’s security measures. 

The added security uniformly protects a company’s assets whether they are inside the public cloud or within the company's own domain.  When an organization uses multiple cloud services, IT professionals may consider using single sign-on access to multiple cloud applications.  Another critical security measure: organizations should always encrypt their data, both while it's in transit and at rest.

Another aspect of IT security to consider includes firewalls and proxies.  Companies need to look at whether the security technologies being used within internal clouds match up to those of potential public cloud providers.  It’s also important to consider how data flows through the firewall-based perimeter to the external cloud.  In some cases, you may want your IT provider to deploy proxy servers that intercept sensitive data for local delivery rather than via the cloud.

If your business deals with highly sensitive data, a private cloud may be your best bet.  A private cloud combines the benefits of a public cloud, such as scalability and metering, with the benefits of private “ownership.”  In other words, businesses own the infrastructure (e.g., servers) in which their data is stored, and only authorized people within their network can access it. 

Businesses that can’t afford going private can consider a hybrid approach, which combines aspects of public and private clouds, giving businesses the option of maintaining their more sensitive data on the private cloud. 

Budget Carefully

In the face of economic realities, many small businesses have had to reduce both budgets and staff, but that doesn’t mean that a business’ IT needs or requests lessen.  Cloud computing can deliver, augment and improve the round-the-clock service your organization relies on. 

With guaranteed services from a cloud provider, small businesses can achieve the level of support their large enterprise counterparts have, without the additional costs.  The bottom line is that cloud computing can ease the demands on smaller in-house IT departments, and let IT professionals focus on mission-critical projects.

The Cloud Computing Tracking Poll found that 35 percent of small businesses have a written strategic plan for the adoption of cloud.  Furthermore, 76 percent of the small businesses implementing or maintaining cloud computing have successfully reduced the cost of applications by moving them to the cloud. 

While the benefits of cloud computing are clear, don’t pursue the cloud on a whim.  Take the time to have a network assessment done by a vendor-neutral service provider to determine your needs and whether a cloud solution is right for your business. 

If your current IT infrastructure needs improving, cloud computing may offer a more cost-efficient option than rebuilding your entire infrastructure.  Whatever your needs may be, the cloud’s customizable and flexible solutions are the perfect option for expanding small businesses, and even for companies just looking to consolidate and de-clutter. 

Jill Billhorn is the vice president, small business at CDW.

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This article was originally published on Monday Sep 19th 2011
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