Lots of discussion of cloud computing centre on how it can save money for large enterprises, but cloud-based systems accessed online can be just as useful for small businesses. Here are five key reasons moving to the cloud makes sense for new and expanding companies.
Picture by Mackenzie Kosut
Cloud computing covers a wide variety of applications, ranging from simple hosting of a business web site through to email systems such as Gmail and complex scientific applications that draw on the power of multiple computers to mine huge amounts of data. The central concept remains the same however: you access applications via an Internet connection and your web browser, without having to install any special software on your own machine. Rather than paying a large up-front fee to purchase software, you pay on a per-month, per-user basis, meaning you can adjust your spending to reflect activity patterns in your business. In many cases, you can also select from a range of services, paying for options you need but ignoring ones that aren't relevant to your needs.
Internet access is now near-universal for Australian businesses: according to the Sensis e-Business Report, 95 per cent of small businesses have some form of internet connection. So the potential to access cloud services is there, and there are some clear benefits to doing so.
1. You avoid large up-front capital expenses
While the cost of computing hardware has dropped in absolute terms, buying a server to deliver software to your staff can still represent a major expense. Because cloud services are paid for on an ongoing basis, you can spread out your expenditure across the year. There are also potential tax advantages, since you can offset those costs against expenditure immediately rather than having to depreciate capital expenses over a number of years.
2. You don't need to maintain your own server
As well as the physical cost of hardware, you also have to factor in the cost of setting it up, which will require either hiring an IT specialist or devoting hours of your time to the process. If your business is just being established, you may not have the resources to hire a full-time or part-time IT manager. Even if your business is large enough, finding someone who is suitably qualified can be difficult, especially outside capital city areas.
Many small business owners end up setting up their own hardware and managing it themselves. However, whatever your personal level of IT expertise, this may not be the best use of your time. If you're a business manager, concentrating on growing your business and maintaining its core values is a more important task than spending hours worrying about security settings and why your server has unexpectedly crashed.
3. You don't have to grapple with unfamiliar interfaces
Because the vast majority of cloud-based services for small businesses are delivered via a web browser, they are much easier to master than more "traditional" software packages. Modern web browsers can deliver a sophisticated interface that can update without constantly requiring pages to reload, and anyone familiar with basic web browsing and searching can quickly master most cloud-based business systems.
I wouldn't want to overstate this point -- to make the most of any software system, you need to spend time investigating its features and training yourself in how to use it efficiently. But there's little doubt that working in a browser is easier for most people than trying to work in a complicated desktop environment.
4. Your software is accessible from anywhere
Because the software and the data for cloud-based business applications isn't trapped on a server in your office or a laptop in your car, you can generally access it from any machine which has a browser and an internet connection. This is especially useful if you're travelling for work or if you have staff who spend most of their time on the road. It also means that if your computer suddenly stops working (or gets stolen), you can quickly get up and running on a replacement machine.
There is one potential disadvantage of this flexibility: you need to make sure that you use a difficult-to-guess password for logging into cloud services and that you change it regularly, to eliminate the risk that others can get access to your business systems. Check out our guide to choosing a password that's easy to remember but hard to guess.
5. Your data is backed up automatically
Having access to data online also means that the responsibility for ensuring backups and continuity of service isn't something you have to spend a lot of time worrying about. Cloud services are often deployed from multiple data centres, where backup happens continuously, so even if there's an outage you should suffer minimal disruption and data loss.
Again, backup isn't something you should take for granted. Before signing up for any cloud service, establish what kind of backup and redundancy systems it has in place. It also makes sense to export key data into your own backup system on a regular basis.
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