So, you’re a small to medium sized enterprise. 10 (or more) years ago, you were advised to buy and install a networked server to store all your files on, and to make sharing between employees/users simpler. Marvellous ! You did this, and for a time all was good. But over time, the overhead of managing your server got greater and greater. You’ve had to make sure you have backups (you DO have backups, don’t you ?) You’ve had to make sure that you have applied all of your operating system patches (you DO do this, don’t you ?) You’ve had to make sure that you’re anti-virus software is up to date and that the monthly virus definition files are all in good working order (again, you DO do this, don’t you ?).
You have also noticed that the server has slowed down a bit – it seems to be ‘clogged up’ with lots of small log and data files, all of which slow it down.
Given that you bought the server 10 (or so) years ago, you may have noticed that memory and CPUs have moved on greatly since then. You may have noticed that Microsoft have produced new operating systems since then. Have you upgraded to the latest operating system ? Is your operating system still supported by Microsoft ?
All of this has been leaving you feeling that you are having to devote more of your time to IT and IT maintenance than you should be. Your job is your core business – NOT to become some kind of IT guru. You may have passed this headache to a third party company. If you have, you can be sure that you will be paying handsomely for it.
All of this is the background to why you are now being – strongly – advised to move to the cloud.
What is the Cloud ?
At its simplest level, this is using someone else’s servers, which are accessible via the internet (this is what most people mean when they talk about the cloud). The ‘someone else’ here is most likely to be Microsoft (Azure), Amazon (AWS), or Google (Google Cloud Platform).
Making use of these ‘cloud’ servers / services, means that someone else (see earlier for likely definition of ‘someone else’) takes care of operating systems, operating systems updates and patches, backups (an aside on this in a bit), and anti-virus issues.
But there are more issues to consider as well.
Can I Have an Example , Please ?
One example is Facebook – this can be regarded as being a cloud based application; Facebook takes care of all of the infrastructure issues, and allow you to make use of the social media application.
Microsoft’s Office 365 is cloud based computing – this is offering many of the functions that you are used to like MS Word, and MS Excel, but via a web front-end (web user interface), and without needing to install or maintain any software on your servers, or kit.
Google Docs, Drive, etc. is all cloud based computing.
Why Move to the Cloud ?
The main rationale for moving to the cloud, is the reduction in management and maintenance that you have to do. You no longer need to provide space for servers; you no longer need to provide climate controlled, secure space for servers. You do not need to think about / concern yourself with having an uninterruptible supply of electricity to power your servers. You no longer need to consider backing up your servers; keeping your server’s software up to date. In short, it is all about handing these headaches over to someone else – someone whose main job is to focus on this sort of thing – thus allowing you to focus on the things which are actually important to your business.
Things to be aware of
If you do take the decision to move to the cloud, there are things that you need to be aware of; there are implications and consequences that you should be aware of.
One of the first and perhaps most obvious ramifications of adopting cloud based computing, is that if you have no connectivity, you have no access to that particular functionality. This is mitigated in a couple of ways – firstly, connectivity these days is generally pretty good – secondly, some cloud based software has some limited offline functionality (I’m thinking here of the Google Docs suite of software). Within the office environment, this is less of a worry, but for your road warriors, it may be a consideration.
Now I’d like to talk about release cycles ! Let me take a simple example. You start to use Google’s Gmail email client (web) application; you get used to it; you begin to like it. And then Google make an upgrade to it. And it throws you off balance. Now you may be someone who is an early adopter; who is comfortable with change. Then again you may not. Whichever you are, by going down the cloud route, you have no (perhaps a very small amount) of control over when you adopt a new change. More generally, if you adopt the cloud philosophy (which I hope you do), then you are in the hands of someone else’s release cycle. When you are maintaining Microsoft’s Word, Excel, PowerPoint suite yourself, you have complete control over when you upgrade – when you move to the latest and greatest version. In the cloud world, you have very much less control over this. The positive way of looking at this is to say that no longer can your business be held back in the dark ages by someone’s reluctance to embrace change.
Depending on which cloud based software you are dealing with, and who the underlying company is, you may get little (or no) notice of changes to the user interface. You may also find new features appearing with little or no notice. Generally this is beneficial, and to be welcomed, but if you are in a business where you have been used to rolling out full training of new features, then this may present you with some challenges.
The user interface changing is one aspect of having less control as a result of using cloud services. Another related issue only applies if you have custom software which makes use of the cloud software. Again if the cloud software changes, then you may need to make changes to your software to accommodate the change to the cloud software. Generally in this sort of case, you will be talking about some kind of cloud based API, which is likely to have a better / more managed release cycle policy than simply a user interface type change. In this sort of situation, even if you do not need to make changes to your software to accommodate the cloud based software change, you may well need to carry out some regression testing – or at the very least have to consider whether you need to do some regression testing. So again this is a situation where change outside of your control (ie: change to the cloud based software) involves you in effort and work which you would not have to do in the traditional on-premise paradigm.
Under the heading of “Things to be Aware of” Data comes pretty high. If you are using cloud services, then you need to be aware of who owns any data which is created/stored, and where it is stored. Data is increasingly important – both the actual data (names, addresses, etc.) as well as “metadata” – data about data. As a UK company, you are subject to laws relating to data. It is therefore important that you know about your data. Similarly, the location of your data is important.
One final consideration that I would like to make known to you relates to having an audit trail. If you make use of an online accounting package, that is able to pay invoices directly (for instance) then you are very likely to want to know that you can – if you need to – go back through an audit trail to check who authorised any given payment. Again, this is just an example – having an audit trail is likely to be important whatever cloud based software you use.
I am certain that making use of ‘off-the-shelf’ online/cloud based software is the way of the future for small to medium sized businesses. But I also know that as a business you should go into this with your eyes open, and be aware of the things that you need to look out for. The alternative to embracing this new world of online / cloud based software is that you remain stuck with software which may be familiar, but which will consume more and more of your time to manage and maintain.