by Dr. Lynne Williams, Kaplan University, MSIT
Cloud computing is hot these days, and becoming increasingly popular as 2015 approaches. While large organizations leverage cloud services for long-distance collaboration, data storage and many other applications that make running a geographically dispersed business easier, there’s also room in the cloud for small business.
One of the primary strengths of working with cloud services is that cloud-based applications and storage usually allow the client to share a service or information across a wide range of devices. In the past, applications and services typically resided entirely on a user’s local computer. The major disadvantage to this type of local installation is obvious; in order to access an application or service, the user must have physical access to the system on which the app or service resides. In a 24/7 business environment, being tethered to a desktop system can be unproductive and inconvenient.
With most cloud-based applications, the app or service can be reached using the user’s smartphone, tablet, or desktop. If the device can connect to the internet and has a web browser, then the user is ready to use the cloud with that device.
There’s a bewildering variety of cloud-based applications available, including office suites, accounting applications, communications management, and customer management. For example, while most small businesses would have difficulty affording the upkeep of a locally installed complex CRM [customer relationship management] system, a cloud-based CRM requires no local support and only the required functionality need be selected (and purchased).
With a cloud-based office suite, just about any type of business document can be generated and stored in the cloud for access by anyone with proper authorization. Besides the ease of collaboration, another benefit of working collaboratively on a cloud-based document is the consolidation of versions of the documents. Because the team is working on a single centralized copy of the document, there won’t be multiple versions of the document floating around and the central document will always maintain the latest additions and changes.
For many small businesses, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to effectively perform all of the necessary tasks, due to limited personnel. A cloud-based time management solution can help redress the balance of people against what needs to done by helping personnel put their time to more efficient use. Cloud-based “schedulers”, such as Jobber©, allow employees to set up appointments, meetings, and tasks on an interactive calendar. Using any internet-capable device, the user can drag and drop appointments, mark a job as complete, and send invoices for finished work, all from a single interface.
Probably the most crucial factor in the success or failure of a small business is how well the business handles financial management. The efficiency and accuracy of handling the daily flow of invoices and bills plays a key role in overall profitability. While many small business owners are aware of accounting software, such as Intuit’s QuickBooks©, they may be (quite literally!) short-changing themselves by not using additional cloud-based financial management applications. The cloud-based version of QuickBooks© can be used to track expenses, calculate budgets, and estimate taxes in addition to the usual bookkeeping chores. Personnel can track cash flow in real time and having the application based in the cloud means that the owner always has an accurate snapshot of the business’s performance.
Naturally, as with any type of business application that uses the internet, there are certain disadvantages and information security issues of which to be aware. Accessability should be a concern; if personnel lose internet connectivity, they’ve also lost access to cloud-based apps or services. Connectivity issues might not be problematic in an urban environment, but could cause problems for small businesses located in more rural areas where wifi or cellular coverage is sporadic or spotty.
Using a cloud-based app or service also means that the user of the service is at the mercy of the cloud vendor to provide adequate security precautions for any stored data. At a minimum, the cloud provider should be able to guarantee that data is traveling to and from the cloud over a secure connection (look for the S in HTTPS when connecting to the application or service). The provider should also encrypt all data stored in its remote facility, as well as separating each virtual “container” of an individual business’s data from all other businesses. Finally, the vendor should provide detailed information concerning anyone, other than the owner of the data, who may have access to the data, such as backup operators at the remote storage facility.
Cloud computing can save a small business time and money by giving even the smallest company an inexpensive means for leveraging applications and services once only available to large corporations. With some careful attention to the fine print, most small businesses can use the cloud to their significant advantage.
Cloud security alliance. (n.d.). Retrieved October 22, 2014, from https://cloudsecurityalliance.org/
Field Service Management Software for Faster Scheduling and Invoicing. (n.d.). Retrieved October 22, 2014, from https://getjobber.com/
Make anyplace your place of business. (n.d.). Retrieved October 22, 2014, from http://quickbooks.intuit.com/online/
Workflow Approvals – Salesforce.com. (n.d.). Retrieved October 22, 2014, from http://www.salesforce.com/sales-cloud/workflow-process-software.jsp
* The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the view of Kaplan University.
Lynne Y. Williams is a faculty member in the MSIT program at Kaplan University who has been messing around with computers and networks since the days of VAX mini-mainframes.