By Anna Malczyk
"Cloud computing' is a technical term for something that most internet users are already familiar with and using on a daily basis. Basically, it means computing services and tools are housed on the internet (in the cloud) rather than locally on physical hardware.
Its a revolutionary idea because everything is stored and processed on the web rather than on the individuals computer, meaning that hardware requirements shrink while capacity grows. If you use an online calendar, photo-sharing site (like Flickr or even Facebook), file storage service (like Dropbox) or mobile device that lets you sync your content, youre part of the cloud.
Its no secret that businesses of any size must be online to succeed these days - but small businesses especially can benefit from the features of cloud computing. Here are four ways in which the cloud can and will transform your small business.
1. More affordable
Buying and maintaining hardware costs a lot of money. Even a basic low-end server - a device that lets employees share documents, create backups and connect remotely - will set you back about R20,000, and that doesnt account for maintenance, running costs or repair.
On the other hand, an online file-sharing and hosting tool like Dropbox offers 100GB of storage for about R160 a month - and it also allows you to access files from anywhere, to perform backups, to share content and to recover files that may have been deleted accidentally.
Many cloud services are completely free (and almost all have a basic free service - SugarSync offers 5GB free to everyone). Those that have monthly costs are usually very reasonable. You neednt be stuck with a bad or expensive service.
2. More versatile
Many small businesses - especially the new ones - are characterised by growth, uncertainty and shifting requirements. Static hardware installations, or even software purchases, can be fine for a specific period of time, but if you find you need to turn your business on its head, they lose all their value.
Thats not the case with cloud-based services. Not only is there a massive range of different tools and services to choose from, but each category also has many competing products, prices, functionalities and uses. Swapping from one service to the next is usually trivial, so you can adapt your tools to your business, not the other way around.
3. More secure
Hardware is notoriously finicky - if a hard drive or a server crashes, weeks or even years of work and data could be lost. Hardly any small business performs sufficient backups - time and storage are usually constraints - and backups can be just as prone to failure. Local storage and internet connections are also typically unencrypted, making it easy for data theft to occur.
Data stored on the cloud is generally considered to be much more secure because its harder to lose (most services perform their own backups) and there are many service providers that offer strong encryption or privacy features. Of course, errors and leaks can happen - but it doesnt hurt to keep your vital data stored off-site that wont be destroyed if your premises are flooded or burnt.
4. More mobile
A characteristic of many new small businesses is that they arent tied down to a single office or location. Their founders and employees are constantly on the move - at meetings, attending conferences, pitching to financiers, travelling to promote their business - so instant access to vital data and services from anywhere is a must.
Cloud-based services make this possible because they are housed remotely - all you need is your login and a suitable device (a smartphone will do). Most services will update automatically to display the latest information, so you can see, for example, if your schedule has changed or if files have been updated. Employees can be more efficient if they telecommute, and this also reduces the strain on the business infrastructure. Collaborating with project teams and experts around the world becomes effortless rather than impossible.
Harnessing the cloud enables whole new ways of doing business on its own, but its also a valuable addition to any existing business - small or large. Whether you become more efficient by adding just one remote service to your repertoire, or if you move your entire business onto the web, the cloud has a world of potential to offer.
For more information on the University of Cape Town ([email protected]) Start and Manage a Small Business course, which starts on 13 February 2012, call Nikita on 021 447 7565. Alternatively, visit GetSmarter for more information.