How businesses small and large are being revamped by the cloud

If cloud computing was still something of an overhyped joke in 2010 2011 is the year of the punchline. Key vendors are readying major cloud initiatives and data centre providers are on a cloud-fuelled investment binge quickly evolving the concept from vague idea to revolutionary game-changer. With that commoditisation comes both opportunities and threats for small businesses: opportunities to totally reinvent themselves using cloud services; and new threats from savvier competitors if they don’t.

Immediate Assistants an onsite medical risk management and rescue provider that’s been bandaging extreme adventure racers and fixing up movie crews since 1986 recently joined the cloud brigade and abandoned paper-intensive processes and basic servers to run most of its administrative systems online. This included use of OzEPay electronic payroll RosterLive rostering Accounts IQ accounting and Microsoft’s Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) with hosted applications including SharePoint knowledge management Dynamics CRM customer relationship management and more.

Many users are learning the joys of the cloud through cloud-based backup and storage services like Dropbox.

It was a major improvement for the 50 full-time and 150 part-time Immediate Assistants employees who work across dozens of countries and need access to current information no matter where they are. While they had basic email and other systems running from their Sydney headquarters the new configuration supports staff much better; it provides everything from city-based medical advice for shows like The Biggest Loser to on-site assistance at remote mining operations. It also maintains full version control and leverages off its providers’ strong security which is essential for handling clients’ medical records.

“As a nationally recognised training organisation we have to comply with training guidelines and certifications” explains CEO Dr Adrian Cohen. “Version control means our employees are seeing the documents they should be seeing. And with staff everywhere from Morocco to Papua New Guinea and remote Queensland mine sites it’s important that our people are able to access information and keep in touch.”

Desk-bound staff use the cloud-hosted systems and Microsoft Outlook to access the cloud from their conventional desktops. Performance over a 2Mbit/s symmetric DSL connection has been adequate but they’re considering a 4Mbit/s upgrade in the future. Change management and staff education were also crucial with change management advisory Change Shing enlisted to ensure staff made the most of the new system.

Months on there’s no question going with the cloud was the right decision. “Embracing the cloud has helped us instil a rigour based on the fact that optionality has disappeared” Cohen explains. “Everything to do with a client gets recorded in the CRM system – and it’s much more timely and visible utilising online services. We’ve been able to make sure people use the technology and have it in front of them all the time.”

Clear skies ahead

In an industry where new trends come and go faster than clothing fashions cloud had every opportunity to become yet another unfulfilled promise for a community of global businesses that’s seen more than its fair share of technological duds.

Yet there’s growing consensus that today’s cloud – a broadly supported heavily resourced model that trumps previous application service provider (ASP) web services hosted application and other paradigms – has enough potential and flexibility to accommodate whatever today’s businesses want to do with it. Industry forecasts predictably anticipate big things: IDC for example expects cloud services revenue to grow from US$16.5 billion and 4% of all IT spending in 2009 to US$55 billion and 12% of all spending by 2013.

Even if your company isn’t planning on embracing the cloud it may soon be unavoidable as employees’ push for mobility forces companies to consider ways to enable access to information anywhere. Some companies got into cloud services early with a punt on while many others are leveraging cloud services in the form of web and email filtering systems from the likes of McAfee Symantec AVG ClearSwift Immunet and others. Still more users are learning the joys of the cloud through cloud-based backup and storage services like Dropbox JungleDisk EMC’s Mozy or Carbonite.

The real gateway drug however is likely to be one of the online productivity suites which tie together common user functionality with online collaboration and links to other cloud-based systems. Google’s popular Apps new cloud-based offerings like Microsoft’s Office 365 or Oracle’s Cloud Office and online-only contenders like Zoho and ThinkFree are now being designed with the cloud in mind – and the proliferation of tablet computers has made them instantly accessible from anywhere.

This bodes particularly well for organisations that see the cloud as an invaluable way of extending information to employees where and when they need it – and it’s becoming de rigeur in business communications bundles. Optus for one recently announced it will join the likes of AAPT in reselling Google Apps for Business parrying Telstra’s T-Suite tie-up with Microsoft’s BPOS and related cloud applications.

Building customer trust

Accessibility isn’t the only thing drawing businesses to the cloud; for many companies the real appeal of the model lies in its scalability which caters for usage peaks in a way that simply cannot be matched using in-house systems.

This capability has kept digital marketing agency Citrus coming back to cloud provider Amazon Web Services (AWS) time and again ever since it was enlisted by bookseller Borders to run a 2008 campaign promoting a Christmas sale to an email subscriber list of over 1 million people.
Since it had no idea how many of those people would visit its site to access the rich and large Flash application Citrus couldn’t predict how many web servers it would need to handle the traffic. Its solution was to move its online assets onto AWS’ Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) a massive collection of servers that can be rented by the hour based on their power. EC2 had no trouble handling the 50000 people that visited the site in its first six hours and Citrus has been running its campaigns from the cloud ever since helping organisations like the Victoria Racing Club deal with a rush of visitors on one or two days of the year.

“Internet applications are getting heavier and richer and we’re all creating and consuming much more video online” says general manager of technology Andrew Fisher. “That all impacts on infrastructure and people turning up to a web site and it not being available is a negative brand experience. The person that can’t get through the first time might not bother to come back in a couple of hours.”

“This is the heart of what cloud computing enables us to do” Fisher adds. “As technologists it’s the bridge of trust between company and consumer. That bridge has been fragile in the past – but Amazon can deal with whatever amount of traffic they can throw at us and we can do all those heavy media files without thinking about it. This frees us up to think about what the applications are delivering how they work and what the customer experience is.”

Taken to extremes some innovative startups are turning to cloud services to run their entire businesses; there are enough cloud solutions out there that you can probably offload the majority of your core business functions to specialists who are more than happy to do what it takes to keep your data and services available for you.

Custom shoemaker Shoes of Prey for example has built a lean multinational manufacturing operation that relies totally on Google Apps and a variety of other cloud services. This even extends to core functions such as communications with many small businesses slashing their communications costs by adopting hosted PABX contact centre and unified communications solutions from the likes of ShoreTel Fonality Vonex and others.

With offices in Melbourne Sydney Brisbane and Cape Town South Africa “We have a very distributed workforce and people come and go all the time” says John Quinn managing partner of management consultancy Moss and Hooper which began using a hosted SugarCRM customer relationship management system from Insightful CRM several years ago and recently added a Fonality Connect cloud-based PABX system to the mix.

“When our PABX was getting a bit old in the tooth the idea of getting into IP telephony was attractive but upgrading the existing systems became quite an expensive proposition” he continues. “There’s no capital cost in moving to the Connect system and we could reduce our dependence on ISDN connections coming into the office; we didn’t need to add any other networks and just took network services away. It has worked exceptionally well and every so often we get a software upgrade with extra features without doing anything else.”

That’s the beauty of the cloud: it provides the infrastructure you need where you need it and how you need it. And while there’s been much for small businesses to love about cloud computing for some time a growing list of satisfied customers confirms that the concept has moved from early-adopter paradise to the edge of the mainstream. If you’re mobilising your workforce improving data management simplifying infrastructure or fostering collaboration and a single source of the truth – then cloud computing has never been more relevant.