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A Beginner’s guide to cloud computing for small and start-up businesses

November 30, 2014

The phrase ‘cloud computing’ has already been around for a number of years. However, plenty of small business owners are only just discovering what the ‘cloud’ actually is and more importantly, how cloud computing can be used to their advantage.

What is cloud computing?

Put simply, the cloud is the internet. And cloud computing is the tools and programmes which you can use online. Instead of the traditional method of installing software directly onto a computer, anyone can take advantage of a huge variety of cloud based solutions; all they need is an internet connection.

From tools which cover file storage and data backup to customer relationship management (CRM) programmes, almost all traditional business activities can be done on the cloud. Businesses can sign up and immediately be given access to enterprise level software without any upfront costs and only a monthly rental fee.

Why choose the cloud?

From the leanest of start-ups to long established small businesses, cloud computing is able to provide a number of distinct advantages compared to using traditional software:

1. Safety

Storing data and documents on the cloud ensures that should a disaster happen your data is kept safe online. From a lost laptop to a fire in the office, businesses can save their data on the cloud safely and without sacrificing on accessibility.

2. Flexibility

Instead of traditional software, cloud tools offer always offer varied plans that can be tailored to your business’s needs. If your team alters, then a plan can be upgraded or downgraded fast– all for a consistent monthly price that will only change when your needs change.

3. IT Expertise

Cloud based solutions never need updating, maintaining or securing by a customer. The tools you use are always automatically updated without the need for expertise from staff, or involvement from an IT department saving you both time and money.

4. Collaboration

If a document is stored online, then it can worked on by multiple people, at anytime, anywhere in the world. By no longer having the need to email multiple documents between people, staff are more efficient and can work more effectively.

Ultimately, cloud based solutions offer an efficient and flexible way for small businesses to utilise tools that would be both costly and cumbersome if they were to be purchased in a traditional manner.

Should your business be using cloud solutions?

If your business does decide to make the jump to the cloud, there are a number of questions which you should ask for how a cloud solution can complement your business activities:

  • What exactly do you want to achieve by using this product?
  • How much does it cost?
  • Is there a minimum length of contract?
  • Is the cloud based tool compatible with your existing software, such as databases and CRM systems?
  • Is there ongoing support from the service provider both for general advice, and how to get the most out of their product?
  • Is there a Service Level Agreement (SLA)?

Often it is well worth spending time speaking to a cloud solution provider to get to know the specifics of how they operate. One of the biggest issues many business have when using the cloud is how and where their data is stored; and in the event of an emergency – can it be accessed?

Many businesses which offer cloud based solutions should be able to answer these questions and will often provide a service level agreement (SLA). This puts in place guarantees such as the uptime of their site, and how your data will be secured.

Some popular small business cloud solutions include:

Office 365

The Microsoft programmes that are the staple of almost every office are now cloud based, automatically updating and accessible from almost anywhere in the world. Plans start from as little as £3.10/month per user. Office.microsoft.com/en-gb/business

Basecamp

The online project management tool from 37Signals offers complete planning, collaboration and document sharing. Your team could all be in the same office, or signing in from anywhere across the globe – you can still work together. Access starts from $20/month. Basecamp.com

Google Apps

A complete package of business tools from Google. With the ability to make calls, hold HD video meetings with your computer, 30GB of storage and online tools for documents, spreadsheets and slides. It costs $5/month per user, or $10/month per user for unlimited storage. Google.com/work/apps/business

Box

Providing the ideal solution for online storage, Box offers 10GB of secure, free online space to store your files and documents. Collaboration on documents is made all the more easier with the ability to invite colleagues to work on your files. Plus, it’s all perfectly tailored to work on mobile devices so you can get access on the go. It’s free for single users and pricing starts from £3.50/month for up to 10 users. Box.com

Skype

Although it’s an internationally recognised name, Skype is still a cloud based solution. By offering free calls and messages to other skype users, plus cheaper calls to landlines around the world it’s ideal for employees who travel frequently but need to stay in contact. Skype.com/en/

How to find the ideal cloud solution for your business

When you’re trying to find the perfect tool for your business needs, it’s well worth shopping around. Often there are multiple businesses out there offering similar products so it can often be hard to see which one stands out from the crowd.

Most businesses offer free trials of their products and it well worth playing around with products before committing to a contract. One product may have an extra piece of functionality which is critical to your business needs, another may offer fantastic customer support. Only by exploring the different options can you find the solution which works for you.

It’s also worth getting more than one employee to test to product. Not only do people spot different things, it means you can see if a product caters to both all of your staff – regardless of their knowledge of how to use technology.

With a flexible and cost effective range of options covering almost all of a small business’s needs, cloud computing is certainly a popular option for small businesses and start-ups. And with more and more cloud solutions being offered, it’s just a case of seeing which one works for you.

About the author

Ciara Wood is the head of marketing and sales at MSM Software – an award winning bespoke software development agency with offices in London, Bristol and Exeter.