In last month’s article, I wrote about what the cloud is and why it matters to small and mid-sized businesses. Today I’ll dive a little deeper into that topic and mention a few cloud services and applications that businesses may find useful.
Cloud applications and services generally have two key features in common: “Available anywhere” and “No upfront cost”. These features, especially the second, make them particularly attractive to smaller businesses.
“Available anywhere” is often thought of in terms of supporting a mobile workforce, such as salespeople on the road, and employees working from home or from remote offices. This is true, but there’s more to it than that. The fact that cloud computing resources can be made available to anyone in the world opens up options for collaboration and outsourcing of tasks that give small businesses a reach beyond just the resources of the people they employ. Many cloud offerings have mobile apps for iPhone, iPad, Android and Windows phone, or can be accessed on mobile web browsers, extending that “anywhere” access far beyond laptops with wifi.
The typical “pay as you go” subscription model of cloud services eliminates the barrier to entry that used to restrict enterprise applications to larger companies. Those were the only ones that could afford to buy new server hardware, database software, and expensive application software licenses to roll out a new application. When you’re only paying for what you use, it’s easy to start and scale up quickly, and scale back down as requirements change. While there are literally thousands of cloud applications and services out there, here are just a few that I’ve had experience with, that you might find valuable for your business.
Your company phone system in the cloud: RingCentral
A full-featured business phone system no longer requires an expensive on-premise PBX (private branch exchange) device. In-the-cloud Voice over IP (VoIP) PBX systems like RingCentral give you all those “big-system” features like auto-attendant, voicemails as email attachments, call routing and queuing to teams and departments, and “follow-me” forwarding to mobile or land-line phones. Cloud systems can also offer features that on-premise systems typically don’t have, such as the ability to treat your mobile phone as an extension on your phone system, fax to email and email to fax gateways, and conference-call hosting. If you have SIP-compatible VoIP phones, you can use them, or you can buy them through RingCentral (one of the few cloud services that have up-front expenses associated). There are other such services, including Comcast Business Voice Edge, whose price includes VoIP phone rental.
File server in the cloud: Dropbox for Business
You may well be familiar with Dropbox already, as over 100 million people use their cloud-storage service. The free version is best known, and supports file syncing between PCs, Macs, smartphones, and tablets, and access to your files through the web interface. Dropbox support is built into many mobile applications as a de facto file system. What you may not be as familiar with is Dropbox for Business, recently rebranded and with a Single Sign On (SSO) feature added, so corporate users can use their corporate network credentials for access. With centralized administration of company accounts, Dropbox is positioning itself as a cloud alternative (or supplement) to file servers, with unlimited storage and “forever” backup and version control of every file you store there.
Forget FedEx and Faxing – get signatures with DocuSign
Getting the right signatures on the right documents is a crucial part of many business transaction, and DocuSign uses the cloud to manage the process and guide signers through the process of adding their digital John Hancock to a document. DocuSign warrants electronic signatures to comply with the ESIGN act, and has a court-accepted audit trail on each interaction. Especially for businesses who need signatures from people in faraway locations, using the cloud to speed along the process can be a huge benefit.
Let’s meet in the cloud: GoToMeeting
When you want to present your product or service to groups of people or even just one person, in another part of the country or across the globe, meeting in the cloud is a cost-effective way to do it. For presenting to larger groups, its big brother, GoToWebinar is available, too. While Skype and similar programs are great for smaller-scale interactions, these products help with not just the meeting itself, but with the invitation, registration, and reminder processes that take place before the meeting or webinar starts, and the help to make sure people attend by offering to add it to their calendar and sending email reminders just before the event.
Remember Everything: EverNote, OneNote
These and other “note” applications are for more than just taking notes. They aim to be a repository for notes, pictures, web clippings, and just about anything else you may want to refer to later. Both are similar in that they sync your notes to the cloud and make them available from your other devices. Both allow you to share notes with others as well. Both have Windows and mobile (IOS, Android, Windows phone) apps, but OneNote isn’t available on Mac so your choice may depend on your multi-platform needs.
The “Big” guys: IaaS, PaaS
I’ll close with a quick note on Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS) offerings and how they can be game changers for some small businesses. Amazon’s AWS is the dominant player here, with Microsoft’s Azure, Google’s Compute Engine, and IBM’s SoftLayer and SmartCloud all vying for market share. If your business is data-intensive, or heavy on research and requires massive computation for short periods of time, cloud can open up worlds never before possible. Instead of needing to buy, house, and provision 50 servers for a project, you can fire up a thousand or more servers in the cloud, just for the period of time they’re needed. For researchers in scientific fields, in the academic world, or companies doing market analysis based on shopping data for millions of transactions, massive computational power that couldn’t have been dreamed of in the past is now available. In the cloud, it costs the same to run one computer for a thousand hours as it does to run a thousand computers for an hour. For a small business that needs to do large-scale analysis, that may be the biggest game changer of all.