The potential inherent in information technology has been immense and the possible impacts are only getting more pronounced. Technology not only bolsters efficiencies, but also influences fundamental changes in the business models themselves. But, getting technology to work for a particular business has traditionally been arduous, requiring significant expense, effort and skills. As such, access to “enterprise-class” has been limited to large businesses who can afford to invest for required application sophistication, reliable deployment and operational support.
Cloud changes this in a fundamental way. It allows the businesses access to the benefits of technology without worrying about (most of) the underpinnings—building, deploying, operating, maintaining, and investing. Thus, the businesses can focus on what technology can deliver, rather than delivering technology. This is a great news for small and medium businesses. Let’s see how:
Choice: The sheer ease with which businesses can explore, assess and select various options on cloud is breathtaking. Be it messaging, collaboration, accounting, CRM, or any other application—businesses have enormous choice. Compared to the traditional on-premises technologies, cloud has the ability to offer this at much lesser costs and commitment. A vibrant community of users can also be quite helpful.
Costs: Cost savings could be a big advantage to SMBs as they adopt cloud. These savings accrue primarily because cloud services are charged based on usage. Thus, costs of idle resources or over-capacity, are saved. Further, as cloud involves mostly op-ex rather than cap-ex, it can be much more cash-flow friendly for an SMB. On-demand nature of cloud services means that the business would not need to carry the costs of computing resources that are not in need.
Speed: SMBs can ill-afford large deployment or upgrade projects, and cloud dramatically reduces the time taken to provision, setting up services and making applications available. Moreover, cloud absolves businesses of intensive efforts required to upgrade to the newer versions. System patches and upgrades, typically, happen in the background with user impact reduced to the minimum.
Access: SMB’s also need 24/7 access to their applications and data regardless of location or device. Increasingly, businesses rely on their mobile devices (phones or tablets) while on the move,or even at the workplace. While cloud applications, by definition, are available anywhere and at all the times, growing consumerization and democratization of internet access (less reliance on corporate networks) are driving cloud application providers to be more available and accessible. Thus, cloud applications are much more likely to be available (or at least compatible) for a variety of devices—operating systems, browsers, or form-factors.
Scalability: It is one of the more fundamental promises of cloud. Vast computing resources shared across a variety of users enable scalability—availability of computing capacity (be it computing power, storage, number of users, etc.) on demand. From a business’s perspective, usage based pricing allows valuable flexibility. Thus making an IT environmentavailable which is dynamic and fluid, with the ability to add new businesses, spin up new services and respond to the ever changing customer needs is easily possible without much pain, effort, and investment of time and costs.
Performance and support: Most cloud service providers design their offerings and are set-up to certain standards for reliability, availability and performance. In contrast, IT infrastructure and set-up at many SMBs has grown organically and thus end up being difficult to manage with clear performance expectations. Most cloud providers offer service level agreements (SLA’s) which can include parameters such as application performance, availability, datacenter uptime, host failure and migration, etc. Further, support is typically available 24×7 to assist with issues, and other such events.
Standardization and Integration: Increasingly, cloud services are adopting common standards—be it for data representation, application interfaces or for underlying aspects of identification and authentication. This has led to possibilities for SMBs wherein they can leverage a diverse selection of technologies to suit their needs best, and still enjoy a level of integration, single sign-on, etc. Of course, it is considerably easy to enable integrated experience if the cloud applications belong to one platform or family, still there is a growing number of integrating services and options that may be used.
Skill Needs: Managing IT, even in an SMB, could be very effort intensive. As number of applications, users and complexity grows, a diverse and relative large set of professionals (whether outsourced or as full-time employees) may be needed. This can include administrators, database experts, network administrators, application developers, hardware technicians, support personnel, etc., apart from technology managers and architects. This could be daunting for most SMBs. The portfolio of technology skills needed with cloud adoption, changes for the better. Cloud enables a business to focus on the purpose and direction of IT—whereas much of the operational, maintenance and support aspects are responsibilities of the cloud service providers.
Security: Contrary to the popular perception, cloud applications can be much more secure, especially for small and medium businesses. It is a fact that ensuring security is hard. The applications and infrastructure need to be continuously monitored, maintained and patched; in general remain ahead of looming cyber threats. This requires enormous expertise and expense, which a small or medium sized business might not want to organize. Similarly, more basic threats to application and information availability like power or network outages, simple human errors, hardware failures, etc., are much better addressed when specialized cloud service providers bring together – scale, skills and investments. Moreover, reputable cloud application providers have, in general, invested significantly in compliance to security standards, operational best practices, infrastructure redundancies and people preparedness.
Technology Innovation: Much of the new technology development is happening in the realm of cloud. Technology companies like Microsoft have adopted cloud as primary focus, whereas offerings from companies like Google or Amazon have been, almost,entirely cloud based. Many innovative startups who are enabling new use cases and applications are building those for cloud. Be it newer ways of connecting to customers, or more efficient collaboration with an organization—some of the most innovative tools are available as cloud only. No business, regardless of its size, can afford not to consider these technologies.
While there are many compelling reasons for cloud adoption by SMBs (and also by larger enterprises to a significant extent), it is important to understand that there are still important caveats. While cloud-first approach makes eminent sense, businesses must consider relevant aspects to decide if a non-cloud option might be appropriate. For example, not all cloud applications have achieved functional parity with their on-premises equivalents. This is especially true with applications involving high levels of customization and integration, like business process automation involving legacy applications. Other considerations could include regulations (location or ownership restrictions on data), bandwidth and quality of connectivity, application performance needs, etc.
It is also important to appreciate that cloud adoption can take many forms. While, at times a cloud application might not fit the needs, cloud hosting with dedicated deployment may still be the right choice. Variants of cloud services—infrastructure, platform or application—can bestow a valuable choice, so as choice of going hybrid. This highlights the fact that cloud does not preclude the need for IT and architectural expertise. As such, with right expertise and adoption assistance, SMBs have indeed quite a lot to gain from cloud.