Need to make a call? You don't look for a pay phone, you use your cell. Need to check the news? You don't buy a paper, you glance at your tablet. So why own and maintain your own server to run your email platform or house your office suite on a laptop? "The cloud" no longer represents the future of computing, it's the present—and we hazard to guess that you can find online choices to handle every aspect of your small business' IT needs.
To prove the point, we looked at what we'd need to start a theoretical business from scratch using just cloud services, plus non-PC devices to access them. Granted, our conceit is a bit of an exaggeration and going "all in" to the cloud is not a fit for every business: Most entrepreneurs would want to use a mix of cloud solutions and more traditional IT products. Also note that the products we mention here just scratch the surface; in any given category there are likely to be dozens of alternatives.
Figure 1: The HP Chromebook 14 looks like a sleek laptop, but it runs Google’s Chrome operating system for accessing the world of cloud-based software and services.
Of course, be aware that cloud services do have inherent limitations versus on-premises alternatives. Most notably, connectivity is the potential weak link: If your business runs in the cloud and you have no Internet access, you're out of business until that connection's restored.
You also need to perform due diligence on the reputation of—and data security provided by—any IT provider you choose, since all your data will reside on its servers. Still, our cloud-centric small business should give you some insight on how to move parts of your business infrastructure to online options—or maybe even all of it.
A Huge Shift in Small Business IT
In the past, one of the first steps of opening a business (from an IT perspective) was purchasing the PCs, servers, networking equipment and other hardware required to run all the business software you needed. But guess what: In 2014 and beyond you don't need to run any software locally, so you don't need yesterday's hardware.
Say Goodbye to PCs
- Technology Then: A laptop or desktop PC
- Technology Now: A Chomebook or tablet
The first piece of hardware you'll need is a Web-enabled device that can run a browser. That's what Chromebooks—the laptop look-alikes that run Google's Chrome operating system—were designed to do. You can also use a tablet with optional keyboard, and of course augment with a smartphone for chores that don't require a big screen and keyboard.
Top Cloud Contenders: PC Replacement
Until recently, our biggest problem with Chromebooks was their cramped screens and keyboards. Taking a design cue from the now-defunct Netbook craze, the earliest models had 10- or 11-inch screens and keyboards suitable for student-size hands (not coincidentally, schools are the biggest purchasers of Chromebooks).
However, we love the HP Chromebook 14 (figure 1; $299.99). With its sleek 4-pound design, 14-inch screen and full-size keyboard, it looks like a high-end laptop, not a toy (well, unless you go for the aqua or red models). It runs Chrome OS, so you can access the Internet and run a few apps locally, and it comes with a 16GB SSD (solid state drive) for crash-proof local storage. (Of course, with online services most of your files will reside in the cloud.)
If you don't mind a smaller screen, then equip yourself and your employees with a tablet and add-on keyboard. You'll be able to access your online services and run a universe of apps locally to boot. If the tablet work style suites your business needs, go all in and get the one everyone wants: Apple's iPad Air (figure 2; $499). Weighing less than a pound, the tablet delivers a 9.7-inch Retina display and storage ranging from 16GB to 128GB. Pair it with the Apple Wireless Keyboard ($69) or one of the many available tablet case/keyboard combinations from third parties.
Figure 2: If all you need is Web access and some apps, there’s no more stylish way to run your business than with an Apple iPad Air and compatible keyboard.
For employees that spend most of their day at a desk, consider a device that mimics the desktop experience—minus the nasty viruses and OS crashes—like LG's new Chromebase 22CV241-W (figure 3; $349.99). It builds a Chrome OS-based "PC" into a stylish 21-inch monitor, giving you a much bigger view of your work than any Chomebook or tablet can. The bundle includes a wired keyboard and mouse, and the machine's HDMI port lets you connect other devices (including a PC) for use as a traditional monitor.
Say Goodbye to Application Servers
- Technology Then: An application server
- Technology Now: Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Paltforms as a Service (PaaS)
Even after Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings became mainstream, businesses were still tied to hardware infrastructure on the back end. After all, you needed something to run your email server and any other shared applications, and your network folders had to live somewhere. But it was only a matter of time before those, too, moved to the cloud. Now you can "rent" server space and CPU cycles from service providers that take care of everything, including server and network maintenance, redundancy, backup and disaster recovery.
Top Cloud Contenders: Small Business IaaS/PaaS Providers
If you are looking for a single provider for most of your outsourced infrastructure needs, consider Intermedia. A leading provider of enterprise-grade, cloud-hosted IT services for the small business market, its Office in the Cloud platform provides email, voice, file sync and share, and many other infrastructure cloud services that are all fully secure, integrated and mobile.
Figure 3: LG’s Chromebase 22CV241 builds a Chrome OS-powered "PC" into a sleek 21-inch monitor.
Lunacloud is another full-service IaaS/PaaS provider. The company offers a hosted virtual server with your choice of CPU, RAM and disk resources, running either Linux or Windows Server environments. Tack on cloud storage and cloud hosting for your site, and you never have to worry about servers again. The company offers metering, monitoring and reporting of resource usage to deliver its pay-per-use model: There are no yearly or monthly fixed fees, only per-hour or per-user fees based on actual usage.
Amazon is one of the leaders in IaaS with its Amazon Web Services (AWS) platform, counting dozens of Fortune 1000-level enterprises among its customer base. But it hasn't forgotten the little guy: The company tailors its AWS Activate offering specifically to startups and other small businesses to help them get started with AWS. Amazon offers scalable server resources to handle your back-end computing needs, storage, database hosting, application streaming and much more—including a complete infrastructure to power your company's mobile app should you build one.
Say Goodbye to File Servers
- Technology Then: A file server
- Technology Now: Online storage and collaboration
Before the cloud, one of the main functions of that server in the closet was to provide central storage for your electronic files so that all your employees could access them, instead of spreading documents across multiple PCs. However, employees still insisted on saving files locally, and everyone's idea of "sharing" a file was emailing it around—which meant you wound up with several versions. Add the headache of backing up all those files, and you can understand why online storage/collaboration services are among the most popular cloud solutions.
Top Cloud Contenders: File Servers
Consumer-oriented storage sites simply house files for upload/download. However, Box.net was built with businesses in mind. Instead of emailing files to colleagues, vendors, customers and prospects, Box lets you send a secure link with passwords, expiration dates and restricted download access. You can create project folders and manage who has access to the files within, including sharing externally with clients. You can even assign tasks, and see who has accessed which files and when.
Figure 4: Cubby’s online folders and projects offer complete management, so you can lock or share certain cubbies as needed.
Cubby (figure 4), by the makers of LogMeIn, is another service that does more than a simple file server ever could. You and your employees can create "cubbies" to store files for a particular department, project, client—whatever makes sense for your organization. Cubbies can be private, or shared publicly for other stakeholders to view. The service offers unlimited document versioning, which means previous versions of a file are saved and always accessible. It also offers the capability to remotely wipe lost or stolen devices, so you never have to worry about data getting into the wrong hands.
Intellinote takes the cloud storage/collaboration paradigm a step further, offering a "cloud workspace" that can improve team productivity. The platform can replace email, notes, calendars and to-do lists by letting employees capture notes, ideas, files, images and documents and then easily find them later on. A team can share projects and workspaces, and you can assign tasks to stakeholders and track their progress. And getting started is a snap; the company offers a growing library of pre-configured integrations and templates to support a wide range of existing business applications and functions.
Say Goodbye to Desktop Productivity Suites
Ironically, the first class of software to move to the cloud—desktop applications—is also one of the last holdouts keeping businesses from completely embracing the cloud. It's hard to let go of time-tested stalwarts like your office suite and accounting package. But today's cloud counterparts aren't only every bit as good as those old standbys, they're better.
- Technology Then: Word processing, spreadsheet and presentation suite
- Technology Now: Online office suites
Top Cloud Contenders: Desktop Productivity Suites
Microsoft wasn't the first to the cloud with an office suite, but we feel Microsoft Office 365 Small Business Premium (SBP) is arguably the best. And it's much more than a bundle of the company's desktop productivity applications (that's available, too, if that's all you need). Office 365 SPB is a suite of on-premises, cloud-based and mobile tools that let you share and connect with colleagues and customers.
The suite of software and services includes online storage and collaboration features; communication tools to handle email, IM and videoconferencing; tools to build your website; oh, and the word processing, spreadsheet, email, and presentation programs you expected. And if you can't cut the cord with your desktop or laptop PC: For each employee you sign, up you'll receive a license key for the desktop version of Office 365.
Of course, it was the initial competition from Google Docs that pressured Microsoft into moving Office to the cloud, and Google Apps for Business is a viable alternative. The heart of Google Apps for Business is Google Docs, which includes a word processor (Docs), spreadsheet (Sheets) and presentation package (Slides).
Those are tightly integrated with the Google Drive online storage service (30GB per user included in the base subscription). Drive gives you access to your files from anywhere, across Mac, PC, and mobile devices: Simply log on to Drive to see your files, and then double-click on one to open it in the associated application.
Say Goodbye to Desktop Software
- Technology Then: Contact management software, accounting packages, payroll services, spam blasts
- Technology Now: Online CRM, cloud accounting and payroll, online marketing
Customer relationship management (CRM) software was one of the first program types to make a go of it in online, back when Software as a Service was known as ASP (short for Application Service Providers). It wasn't long before accounting software moved to the cloud, giving business owners anytime/anywhere access to their books. And the time-honored, but rarely effective, tradition of sending a mass mailing to your customers to announce a new product or promotion has thankfully been replaced by online marketing services that offer more targeted campaigns.
Figure 5: QuickBooks Online offers a full range of features, including access to a universe of add-ins that extend its functionality.
Top Cloud Contenders: Desktop Software
Synonymous with the cloud model, Salesforce.com's CRM platform has become the standard for businesses large and small. The solution lets you and your workforce manage all of your contacts, tasks, and meetings in one place, as well as track your leads, sales deals, and customer interactions. Salesforce.com integrates with all the leading email packages and lets you access data via any mobile device. Even more impressive: the ecosystem of add-ons that has sprung up and lets you add functionality to turn your system into the perfect CRM platform for your particular needs.
SugarCRM is a full-featured CRM platform that offers both on-premises and cloud-based deployment models. You can use the solution for CRM, marketing, sales and support, and it offers a range of features such as a shared calendar, call-center support tools, email integration, mobile CRM, project management, social CRM and more. Choose from four editions—Professional, Corporate, Enterprise and Ultimate—to match just about any business need and budget.
Do you like the idea of moving to the cloud but hate leaving 14 years of QuickBooks data behind? Then don't: Intuit offers QuickBooks Online (figure 6) so you can keep the accounting platform you know while reaping the benefits of cloud and mobile access plus automatic backup of your data.
Figure 6: Constant Contact offers a range of professionally designed templates for your email marketing campaigns.
As with the desktop version, you get expense, sales and income tracking, the capability to create and send invoices, a full library of reports, and a dashboard view to see at a glance how your business is doing. The Plus version also lets you prepare and print 1099s, track billable hours by customer, pay W-2 employees and file payroll taxes and much more.
SurePayroll.com, a subsidiary of traditional payroll processor PayChex, is a full-featured cloud-based payroll service that lets you handle payday and tax-time chores from any Internet-connected device. It lets you run payroll from Android and iOS mobile devices, stay compliant with federal and state taxes and regulations, import the payroll information into your accounting package, track vacation and sick time for your employees and more.
Moving to the cloud wouldn't be complete without moving your marketing efforts there, too. And with today's online marketing service providers, the results are worlds away from the mass spammings and overlooked postcards you used to rely on. One of the pioneers in online marketing, Constant Contact (figure 6) keeps adding tools that deliver far more results than you could hope for on your own.
The service can handle email campaigns, newsletters and announcements; targeted special offers and promotions; online events and registration and management for real-world events; and feedback and surveys. Sign up for the Ultimate Package and get a Personal Marketing Coach who will speak with you regularly to help you get the most out of your subscription.
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