'The Cloud' for Small Businesses

May 26, 2017

Small and medium business owners often ask us about “the cloud”. Usually their questions revolve around how cloud services might fit into their business. Of course, we in the IT world have a sayings: there is no cloud, just other people’s computer. Let me explain.

In its most basic sense, “the cloud” refers to a set of IT services - servers, networking, firewalls, etc. - that reside in a data center somewhere. Humans still have to touch these servers to do things like replace hard drives, update software and all other forms of maintenance associated with the alternative: on premises IT.

We get a lot of “cloud” questions because the term is nebulous and business owners don’t want to miss out on an opportunity to, at the end of the day, make their business run better and generate more profit.

So, let’s break down a typical small business “on premises” environment. There is usually a server, software on that server, network switches, cabling, desktop workstations, wireless access points, and a whole host of other things. The goal of this hardware is to do really one thing: run the business. (Granted employees might like using it for Facebook, et. al. but that will be covered in a future blog article about Acceptable Use Policies!)

With the above typical on premises scenario comes the expense of maintenance, upgrades, repairs and all other related pain. What the cloud really attempts to do is abstract away that hardware maintenance plus offer additional hardware that can be made available at a moment’s notice.

The Cloud, of course, comes with some drawbacks. Mainly, the hardware is not physically close to the users which introduces latency (a.k.a lag) when using certain types of software, and is wholly dependent on the company’s Internet connection for access. If the Internet goes down, it becomes difficult to reach those cloud resources.

However, that physical separation carries many benefits with it. The data centers in which cloud resources are housed are secure, nearly severe-weatherproof, and include all the stuff a data center should. Things such as proper air filtering, temperature control, fire suppression, and battery backup are just a few of the critical features that small businesses often overlook with on premises hardware.

So, bottom line: does “the cloud” matter for your small or medium business and should you be using it? Of course you should, for commodity services. Things that aren’t unique are best placed in the cloud. Email, web hosting, and even application hosting for ERP systems are often best placed in the cloud. The things that you do that are unique to your business should probably remain on prem. For example, nobody is going to suggest running the computer that controls a CNC mill in the cloud. (It should be backed up to the cloud, but that’s another story.)

No one scenario fits every business, which is why it is important to consult with an IT expert when making these kinds of decisions. When we design a solution, it often includes both cloud services, and on premises services. The key is to understand the types of technologies available, and how they fit into an individual business.