16/02/2011

By Mike Doyle, SEO Strategist, DBD Media

Cloud computing has become a bit of a buzzword within the IT community. Often being used as a description for all types of utility based computing accessed over the internet; cloud computing, as a term, groups a whole host of different services and offerings. However the fundamental benefit of cloud computing remains the same amongst the cloud based services.

So why has cloud based services become such a hot topics for SMEs? The main challenge for SMEs when thinking about IT is largely down to understanding their own requirements combined with a small budget for buying in-house technology. That's where cloud based systems can help. The ability to scale your IT capabilities instantly without investing in any new infrastructure or to some extent expertise makes cloud based services extremely attractive to savvy SMEs. Combine these new freedoms with a subscription/"pay for what you use" pricing model and you have a product that may indeed become integral to improving efficiencies within an SME's IT abilities. Simply put SMEs avoid spending money on traditional IT expenditure saving money on hardware/software, pay only for what they use (via a subscription model) and have constant access to the most updated services.

In this article we take a look at the most common types of cloud computing available to SMEs — from cloud storage to cloud hosting services.


Cloud Storage

Cloud storage is one of the simplest applications of cloud computing. Many of the other forms of cloud computing integrate the fundamentals of a cloud storage system within the offered product. Pure cloud storage simply offers the user a scalable storage solution in order to store a whole host of different files on the web (or within the cloud). Flickr is an excellent example of cloud based storage through its web based photo storage capacity, sharing facilities and easy open access. A user simply uploads an image to their main account, shares the image through a web based URL and has access to the image whenever they like — so long as they have internet access.

For an SME this type of storage could prove invaluable especially if they find themselves sharing a lot of different information in different digital formats with their clients. Cloud based storage solutions are also useful for SMEs that travel and need access to all files. Auto synching features allow users to work on a desktop and update the cloud service when they make changes to core files. No longer are you entirely dependent on networked storage.

Drop Box is a good example of a versatile (but pure) cloud storage system. The principles are simple — you upload any file of any type to a Dropbox based folder (again either manually or via a sync) and then access the file via their Dropbox client or via the web. The scalability of the storage options combined with file revision history offer an extremely attractive solution for SMEs within creative or digital industries that need to share large files (or access large files from multiple locations). It also offers a very viable option for cost effective data backups which can be essential when relying on physical media like computer hard drives. Cloud based storage could replace the reliance on local data back-up — a process that is often ignored by SMEs but essential to any business using IT.
Whilst cloud storage solutions are great for storage they are essentially a web based flash drive — cloud storage solutions do not allow you to run software and so do not replace workstations. To completely change the way in which SMEs manage IT Infrastructures you need to look at the software used by SMEs.


Cloud Software (Software-as-a-Service)

Cloud based software gives the user the opportunity to use typically desktop only software like word processors and office related products within a web-browser based environment. This removes the requirements for software installation (in fact local storage overall) and also local storage of files.

What does this mean for an SME? Company "software" is now less reliant on the processes of the actual computer itself but rather relies on an external cloud based solution. All you need is an internet connection. Similarly the user isn't reliant on a program being installed on one computer — now you can access your software from anywhere with an internet connection and, in most cases a browser window. It also removes the worry of software updates as this is essentially handled cloud side by the software provider. For SMEs starting out this could prove to be essential as management of hardware and software across PC workstations is reduced dramatically. The best thing is that cloud software solutions also combine cloud storage as a service offering meaning that files created within the software can be stored locally or within the cloud. This could remove storage requirements and thus reliance on networked solutions. Access to documents is also completely open regardless of where you are — at a meeting with clients or on the road.

The poster child for cloud based software aimed at small businesses has to be Google Apps (for business). Their Microsoft Office "clone" replicates many of the core business applications of the popular Office suite — word, excel, powerpoint, even acrobat becomes Google Docs, Exchange becomes Gmail (for business) and Google Calendar — but also more. Google Apps offers a "market place" that enables the user to sign up for other cloud based (business) software. In reality that's where Google Apps really shines — by integrating the core functionality of the Google product portfolio (gmail, docs etc) with specific business focused software (CRM/Customer Management, Project Management etc).


Cloud Hosting / Cloud Servers

Cloud hosting / cloud server solutions are some of the best examples of the power and flexibility of cloud computing. Cloud hosting works by running websites or other compute services on virtual dedicated servers — this offers a whole host of benefits that we won't go into here but essentially the main advantage is the ability to scale the cloud servers to your requirements within a much larger pool of capacity operated by the provider. This flexibility is hugely advantageous to internet based SMEs who may not know the requirements of their web servers. E-commerce websites benefit greatly from cloud based servers. As their requirements increase they can simply scale their servers appropriately to handle increase in products and traffic rather than being limited to fixed physical servers.
The ability to handle website traffic influxes is extremely valuable to websites that has fluctuating traffic due to seasonality or the nature of their service offering. The danger of traffic fluctuation is the effect on a website's performance. For example when coverage of a website on social media or content website drives a huge spike in traffic a website's bandwidth can be exceeded beyond their capacity. In traditional hosting the website owner would need to contact their hosting provider to negotiate a new contract for higher bandwidth caps, purchase new hardware or simply ride the wave until bandwidth returns to acceptable levels. With cloud hosting the website owner has control over the size of the server and bandwidth. When a website needs extra capacity the website owner simply and immediately scales the server appropriately — when they no longer need the extra capacity they scale back.

Cloud hosting solutions also offer technology based SMEs complete flexibility for web based software/app development. This is extremely useful if SMEs need to have the full functionality of a dedicated server but don't have the funds to spend on an expensive server equipment and do not want to be locked in to a fixed amount of hardware capacity.

ElasticHosts is an example of a cloud hosting solution that offers maximum functionality from their virtual servers. Users are able to instantly create multiple servers on demand and have complete control over server sizes, bandwidth and memory — even server OS. The ElasticHosts service offering is carefully designed to be very easy to use for anyone experienced in managing physical hardware, whilst giving the user so much more flexibility in server scaling and configuration.

Cloud services as described above help SMEs to better utilise their IT spend and help them keep their IT processes efficient. The cloud is an ever increasing world of software and virtualised hardware that may eventually see a shift in how we, as consumers, use IT. For now cloud based systems are very viable solutions to SMEs confronted with expensive IT costs and management.