In the world of information technology, 'The Cloud' is undoubtedly a buzz term right now.
So, what exactly is it and can it help SMEs save money and become more efficient?
Many commentators see The Cloud as representing nothing less than a seismic change for business - and that's for business of all sizes.
Within personal computing, the radical changes in the way many people handle data are already fairly advanced - web-based email, Google documents, calendars, photo sharing, video sharing and instant messaging.
Now the Cloud is hitting the business arena.
As a recent report from the prestigious market research group Forrester put it: 'It's the computing equivalent of the evolution in electricity a century ago when farms and businesses shut down their own generators and bought power instead from efficient industrial utilities'.
That same lengthy and detailed Forrester report also reached a conclusion that should make any SME boss sit up and take notice: 'Cloud-based email is always cheaper for companies with fewer than 15,000 users.'
So, what is Cloud Computing?
In short, it's a virtual database. All business applications and data are handled and hosted on the web - think of googlemail, Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, Flickr and so on. These are services anyone can access at any time from any computer. Data is stored elsewhere and not on their hard drive.
It's a system in which many users share applications - just as we share googlemail or Facebook apps at home with millions of other users. But at the same time you are allocated your own private space. Everyone shares, but they also customise for their individual needs - like a giant office block where many companies rent space, and each company creates different office layouts to suit their needs.
There are no huge proprietorial databases, so no cost to set them up; no need for network maintenance, no need for frequent down time, no expensive application upgrades and costly fixes when those upgrades cause network crashes or chaos.
Major corporations including Microsoft, Google, Amazon, IBM, Sun, Cisco, Dell, HP, Intel, Novell and Oracle all offer individuals and businesses cloud computing.
IT research analyst Gartner has cited Cloud Computing as a major 'Strategic Technology Area' in 2010.
Yet only some 2% of businesses with fewer than 100 staff are using cloud computing, according to a May 2009 report from Forrester Research.
A further 2% said they wanted to introduce cloud computing over the next year, and 37% say they were interested in learning more about it.
So, what are the big advantages for businesses - and what are the potential drawbacks?
With the Cloud, businesses no longer have to run memory sapping applications and software - instead they can access everything through a browser. Applications are effectively rented rather than owned.
This can make the Cloud considerably cheaper for many SMEs. Spending on your business' technology also stops being capital investment and turns into regular expenditure.
Another feature of the Cloud is that it is instantly scaleable. It's possible to go from a two or three-seat arrangement to 20, 50 or 100 seats, literally, with a few keystrokes.
Smaller businesses may feel overwhelmed by both what is on offer and the fairly radical change that it seems to represent.
One tip is to try experimenting with what is on offer - try, for example, Google's word-processing apps in Documents. How do they compare to Microsoft Office?
The main concerns that it seems sensible for any business to associate with the Cloud are: security and reliability. Data, after all, is stored elsewhere, virtually. And if you have no internet, you have no access to apps or your data.
Both these seem like reasonable concerns, and yet, with all the large players in this space, brand is everything. Reliability is a fiercely guarded unique selling point for all the big corporate providers. Security - or a breach of it - would be disastrous for them. So, each of these providers has a very strong incentive to ensure security and reliability are triple-A rated.
Other factors to consider are:
What if the provider of apps and cloud space goes bust? What happens to your company's data?
What happens if your business fails to keep up with payments for the service? Could you potentially have all your business' data wiped?
What about security? What standard of password strength is applied?
Operating in the Cloud may well save your business money, but what will be the cost of migrating all your company's data to the Cloud?
Just as importantly, how much would it cost to do the whole thing in reverse if, say, you find the Cloud does not work well for your business?
Switching to cloud computing may seem like a daunting prospect for many smaller businesses, and yet it could offer very significant savings indeed - and leave those businesses free to focus on the core aspects of their business.
Time then, perhaps, to at least run the numbers.
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