Everything you wanted to know about the cloud … but were afraid to ask

Intimidated by the words “cloud computing”? You shouldn’t be. While the “cloud” might instill fear in some, for a growing number of companies it means increased operational efficiency and significant cost savings.

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More than 20 percent of small businesses nationwide are already using the cloud, a number that’s expected to triple within the next three years. Despite this growing adoption, many business professionals are still unclear about what the cloud is, how it can benefit their bottom line and how to get started.

If you have lingering questions about the seemingly nebulous cloud, and how it might benefit your business, this article may prove helpful.

What is the Cloud and Cloud Computing?

At its most basic level the cloud is a metaphor for the Internet, and cloud computing is simply the act of using the cloud. Diving just a bit deeper, this vast, virtual space comprises three primary service categories: software, infrastructure and platforms.

For most businesses, Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is the entry point to cloud services. SaaS delivers the most current programs and applications via the Internet directly to the end user, as opposed to storing the applications locally on each user’s computer – no software is hosted on site. Salesforce.com is one of the earliest examples of SaaS and today is still one of the most utilized cloud-based software services.

One of the most attractive aspects of SaaS is the ability to pay for software over time. Instead of making a significant capital investment up front, SaaS allows companies to access equivalent levels of software functionality at a monthly cost. Given the increasing popularity of SaaS, many providers are competitive in the space.

Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), allows businesses to meet their growing hardware needs — most often server, storage capacity or bandwidth needs — without incurring the cost of purchasing or maintaining the physical equipment. The IaaS provider owns the hardware and is responsible for housing, running and maintaining it; the client only pays on a per-use basis.

Similarly, Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) allows companies to create applications or software using tools and/or libraries from a provider. For example, Ruby on Rails — a popular coding program — allows customers to build custom applications quickly without having to deal with the headaches of purchasing and managing the underlying hardware and software and provisioning hosting capabilities.

Can the Cloud Benefit my Business?

In short: yes. The cloud is fundamentally transforming how businesses operate. In a Harvard Business Review blog post, MIT research scientist Andrew McAfee says of the cloud, “It’s as inevitable and irreversible as the shift from steam to electric power in manufacturing. Just as that transition brought many benefits and opened up new possibilities to factory owners, so too will the cloud confer advantages on its adopters.”

First and foremost, the cloud is accessible. By giving businesses of all sizes access to sophisticated software, smaller companies have an opportunity to level the playing field with their larger competitors. Because cloud service costs are based on actual consumption and not the total cost of the asset(s), price is not as significant of a barrier for many companies.

Scalability is another valuable advantage. With the cloud, customers can react quickly to changing IT needs and technological advancements. For example: if you’ve recently decided to introduce e-commerce to your website, NetSuite service is just a click away. By easily adding or subtracting capacity, services or users as needed, businesses can respond to their real-time needs rather than projections.

In addition to being accessible, affordable and scalable, the cloud keeps information safe and secure. Research from IBM shows that nearly 90 percent of businesses do not have adequate disaster recovery or business continuity plans. By utilizing the cloud, businesses can rest easy knowing that their files and data are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, no matter the circumstances.

How do I get started using the cloud?

Companies can arrange cloud computing services very quickly and easily. However, before taking that next step, a few words to the wise:

  • Evaluate more than one service before deciding. Many services offer free trials that allow you to assess the service’s full capabilities and user interface.
  • It’s okay to start small. Cloud computing is a different way of working, and building familiarity and confidence may take time.
  • Make sure there’s adequate customer support. Online market places and cloud-based service providers should offer a support team that can diagnose whether an issue is due to Internet access, a user ID issue or with the service itself.
  • Read provider agreements closely. To use the service, you’ll most likely have to accept a service agreement at the outset. Examine such agreements carefully to ensure that you understand exactly how much you will pay, and whether there are fees for early termination.

Lastly, don’t be afraid. While it’s logical to approach any big change to your business with caution, cloud services are quickly becoming the norm for the modern business. By making the transition now, you can immediately realize the bottom-line benefits of cloud services – why put it off another year?

This article originally appeared on ColoradoBiz.

Intimidated by the words “cloud computing”? You shouldn’t be. While the “cloud” might instill fear in some, for a growing number of companies it means increased operational efficiency and significant cost savings.

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