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A lesson in cloud basics for SMBs

Whenever anything new raises its head, particularly around business technology, there are those skeptics who proclaim it a fad. The best example I can think of is social media.

Fast forward a few years and some two billion users later, it looks like social media’s here to stay. No longer are people asking “are you doing it?”, but “how well are you doing it?”. Businesses that have jumped on board early are gaining early mover advantage over competitors.

The same goes for businesses that are taking advantage of the cloud.

The what?

Although the cloud has existed for decades, almost no one understands what cloud is or why they should bother.

In fact, a recent Australian survey by Sage, confirmed less than 30 percent of small business owners understood what the cloud was – which means 70 percent really haven’t gotten their heads around cloud at all.

But how can you do cloud well, when no one’s prepared to tell you what it actually is?

A basic definition and example

At its most basic, cloud computing is computer processing and data storage that exist on a network outside the walls of your company. It’s not associated with any particular technology or vendor.

So rather than you buying and housing a physical server with extra storage capacity and processing speed (which can be costly to buy, maintain and provide IT service staff for), you borrow or ‘rent’ server space and processing capacity from someone else (and they look after it on your behalf).

A classic example is Dropbox, which allows you 2Gb of free storage on their servers – for photos, documents, video, anything really. You can then access your files from any internet enabled device, including on the go with your smart phone. And when/if you need more space you simply purchase some more (and it’s considerably less expensive than upgrading your physical technology).

Dropbox doesn’t do anything more than host files (and let you share them – also a great benefit). And, as with most cloud technologies, you can upsize/downsize whenever you need to – and a flexible business is a nimble business.

But ‘the cloud’ can also mean other things too 

To add to the confusion, people use terms like PaaS, IaaS and Saas to mean the same thing – they don’t, but they do make the cloud usable.

PaaS (platform as a service) 

Now this is the hardest to explain primarily because as a business owner you won’t use it unless you’re in the business of technology systems, software or app development.

PaaS is the programming language that bridges the gap between the cloud computer’s hardware processors and the software that’s driving it. It is to computing what the mains electricity supply and the meter and transformer at the side of your house is to your power point. 99.9% of the time you don’t care how it works (unless you’re an electrician) as long as it does when you switch on your lights or power.

If you’re a technology developer however, PaaS has essentially wiped years, dollars and teams of costly staff off your bottom line because it’s largely all done and there waiting for you. And that’s very exciting (if you’re a developer or an investor).

Shoeboxed and many other technology start-ups wouldn’t exist, yet or maybe even at all, without PaaS.

IaaS (infrastructure as a service) 

This is where you essentially ‘borrow’ a providers computing infrastructure – CPU, storage, memory, and so forth.  Did you know that online retailer Amazon offers IaaS as ‘Amazon Web Services’ and is one of the largest cloud computing providers in the world?

SaaS (software as a service) 

There are lots of examples of SaaS – here are just a few;

  • CRM apps like SalesForce and Sugar;
  • Accounting apps like Xero and SaaSu;
  • Customer contact management apps like MailChimp and Constant Contact

But just in case you’re unaware of any of those, here’s one you’ll definitely know. Microsoft Office. Rather than having to install the usual license on a set number of computers – Office 365 allows you to pay based on your number of users. Then it becomes available wherever you are and whatever device you’re on.

You no longer have to worry about different formats (Mac v PC) and software versions, the cloud version is always synced to the latest one. There are uptime guarantees and security issues are taken care of as well.

Of course – the proviso for all of this working is your internet speed (which let’s face it – in some parts of the country hasn’t improved much since the 90s – but that should change with the roll-out of the government’s NBN).

The whole point of cloud though, is the innovation that it can drive. But you can’t innovate until you’ve a firm grasp of the basics. So we’ll talk more about what cloud really offers businesses next time.

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Simon Foster

Simon Foster

Simon Foster is a self-confessed IT geek and the Managing Director of Shoeboxed Australia. Shoeboxed scans, organises and stores your receipts and business cards online, effectively freeing you from all that paper cluttering up your life and your office.

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