Nervous About Cloud Computing?

CloudThere is a huge trend in technology to move towards cloud computing services. Everyone is advertising that it’s better, faster, cheaper, safer. Cloud services are accessible from anywhere, and you don’t need your IT guy anymore, right? At the same time, those subscription fees add up fast, new security breaches are making headlines almost every day, and you still need your IT guy around to interpret all that technobabble for you (and troubleshoot the computer glitches that still happen all too often!). No wonder it’s so confusing. Here are the answers to your biggest questions about the cloud.

Is it safe?

The most common concern with cloud services is security. Large cloud computing providers are able to set up security infrastructure far better than most small businesses, which makes them safer. However, hackers enjoy the challenge of newsworthy targets, which creates greater risk. There is also financial gain: credit card numbers and bank accounts generate a lot of money for hackers. The reality is that security issues are a problem no matter how you manage your technology. All you can do is follow security best practices and make sure your vendors do the same. Be especially careful with smaller cloud service providers since they may not have the security resources and policies of a larger company.

You will also need to be careful if you are subject to regulatory compliance policies like HIPAA, PCI, SOX, FISMA, etc. Penalties for non-compliance can be steep, so it’s critical to verify that your vendor can guarantee compliance with whatever regulatory requirements impact your company.

What if it goes down?

If your cloud provider has an outage and their services go down, there’s not a whole lot you can do. You can call them for support, and they may have a portal or Twitter feed for status updates. But really, all you can do is alert them and then wait. It’s not the same as calling up your local IT guy who you know and trust.

You could also lose access if your Internet service goes down. You may want to get a secondary Internet service so that if one goes down, you can access the Internet over the backup service. You can also go to another location with Internet service and connect from there.

How do I get to my data?

As long as you like your vendors, you don’t have to worry too much about accessing your data. If you want to move from one cloud to another, or one software vendor to another, this can become a huge problem. It can also come up as an issue if you have reason to archive your data or don’t trust their disaster recovery procedures. Some cloud vendors make it very difficult to download your data. This is a very common issue when it comes to software. Even if access is provided, it can be a highly time-consuming process to identify and download every piece of data. Email and file storage is usually relatively easy to transfer from one company to another.

Do I still need a server at my office?

Maybe. If you only have a few computers, you probably don’t need one; in fact you may not have one now. Once you get past ten or fifteen computers, there are definite advantages to having a server in place. It will allow you to set security policies and password requirements; it will give you control and administrative access to the computers on the network; and it will make it easier to install and share printers.

The other main reason to keep a server in-house is to run software. If you have an application that runs on your server now, you will have to keep a server or find out if your vendor offers a hosted version in the cloud.

Will it really save me money?

Not always. The promise is that the cloud is less expensive due to efficiencies and economies of scale. The bottom line is that you have to run the numbers. You can purchase (or lease) software and servers, which involves a large upfront expense and a relatively low ongoing maintenance fee. If you go with cloud services, your initial expense will be low, but you will always have a monthly expense as long as you use that service. If you rely heavily on cloud services you will probably add another expense: a backup Internet connection. Cloud services hit the books differently, which can impact taxes: a server install is a capital expense, but cloud services are considered an operating expense. When doing your calculations, bear in mind that servers run about 4-5 years before risk of failure becomes a significant issue.

How do I decide if it’s right for my business?

Whether they realize it or not, most companies are already using at least a few cloud services. When it comes to personal use, nearly everyone is in the cloud. You may already use hosted email, like Office365 or Google Apps; perhaps you use Dropbox or Box.com to share files; you might handle video calls with Skype or Gotomeeting; if you have an iPhone you probably back up your data with iCloud. Don’t forget: Facebook and Twitter are cloud services too.

The question is whether you should move more of your technology into the cloud, and there is no one right answer. The best time to evaluate this move is when you have an aging server ready for replacement. Run the numbers, look at the security risks, and think through how much control you need to feel comfortable. Don’t forget to weigh the advantages too: reduced infrastructure in your office, easy access for your staff who work remotely, low startup costs and less need for in-house IT services, just to name a few. There are a lot of great services available to make your team more productive, so don’t let any hesitation about the cloud keep you from doing what’s best for your business.

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