To the cloud .. or not? (A personal account)

This isn’t intended as a comprehensive argument on how to evaluate if Cloud Computing is right for you or not.  I’ve written it to show where we use Cloud Computing in our own business, and where we don’t.  As most of my readers aren’t IT Providers, you may find something relevant in this, or you may not.  But I’m a firm believer in recommending the best solution to a client for their individual needs, so our own decision on Cloud Computing has been based on our current business needs.

To the Cloud … Website, System Monitoring, Ticketing & Job Management

Website – We have our own server, and it currently hosts our website (as at Feb 2012).  We did this because we could, when we started our business nearly 8 years ago. It gave us full control of the website and a chance to practice with website publishing, in an environment that wasn’t too critical (and was backed up).  Since then, our franchise has developed WordPress sites with common themes on a hosted server at another location.  I’m slowly customising (re-writing) the content of those pages and when I’m happy with it, we’ll change our website address to point to this new site.  Our website will then be ‘in the Cloud’ .. so to speak.  The downside? I won’t have full control over all of the design elements. But you know what – I don’t really care. I’m happy with the structure and as long as I can update the content to suit, I don’t need to change the design.  In this case, we are the exception to the rule, as most businesses don’t host their own website anyway.  And if you did want full design control, there are plenty of hosting companies that will let you have that.

System Monitoring –  Now we use some pretty amazing software that monitor’s the health of our client’s computer systems, especially those errors that are screaming silently into the event log. Our access to this is through the Internet to a server managed by a fellow Computer Troubleshooter in New Zealand, who also provides access to North America and the UK.  Whilst the company we buy this software from doesn’t have this internet hosting capability, our NZ group have paved the way for our global franchisees to use this in the Cloud. Once again, I have no control over the server. Once again, I don’t care. As the information on this system is only really useful when it’s real-time, it will re-generate on the current status of the systems when it comes back up.  There are also other monitoring providers that have cloud-based systems as an option (or the only option).

Ticketing & Job Management – Details of our work, including billing hours, are stored in a cloud-based system. This is far more advanced that the previous in-house effort, for a fraction of the cost, plus it has the advantage of the input from thousands of other IT providers in terms of functionality requests, bug reports etc.  At worst, we stand to lose our historical data to some extent – the data centre has hourly backups and offsite backup storage. This information is transferred to our accounting software too, so we have two sources (one in-house, one in-cloud) of our billing information.  And once again, as long as the system works, I’m happy to do the data entry and let the provider take care of the systems administration.

Not in the Cloud … Financial software, Applications, Email and File storage

Financial software –  Our financial software is something that I would have considered using a Cloud-based version of. The problem is that Cloud versions are not compatible with the integration we get from our Job Management software. In English, if I do a job and bill some time, I can transfer that invoice directly to the financial software installed on my PC. I can’t transfer it to a Cloud-based financial system.  So, to save double data entry, the financial software is staying on my PC.

Applications & Email – As an IT Provider, we’re fortunate to get a great deal from Microsoft on their computer software. This includes the latest versions of pretty much anything, so we can use them, learn them and recommend them.  And while some may argue that many Cloud apps are free, I like my Microsoft benefits and most of my clients run Microsoft software too.  It’s a bit hard for me to troubleshoot or duplicate an OutlookExchange problem if I use gmail, or a Word problem if I use OpenOffice. Ever heard the term ‘eat your own dog food’?

File storage – Our files are on our server, because we could. Once again, we had the means to have our own server, support it ourselves and experiment with it. Primarily, it provided our email, website, file storage and printing.  We could also experiment with it. So it made little sense to place our file storage in the Cloud, with our local server handling the job quite nicely and also giving us remote access to these files from the Internet anyway.  Yes, it’s backed up.

We did contemplate switching our server to ‘play only’ mode – making it a box that we ran up when we needed it, instead of it being on 24×7. After moving our website, we could have setup a print server box, a Network Attached Storage device (NAS) for our files (or gone Cloud), and moved our email back to our franchise headquarters (as a POP only service, which would have limited some of our functionality).  But we like having a server because it keeps our skills current.

So, as you can see, it is possible to run a mix of in-house and Cloud IT solutions in your business.  You have to weigh up the pros and cons of each, and also look at the big picture. What’s the point in moving to Cloud for email if you still have a server doing file and print?  Where do you think you will save money? If you think that IT support is expensive, have you looked into a Managed Service (with a fixed price and a results focus) instead of support at an hourly rate?

I’m not saying ‘don’t investigate the Cloud’. It’s enabled us with some capabilities that would have been significantly more expensive to do in-house.  And that’s where I think it absolutely rocks for small businesses.

If you want to look at Cloud Computing, make an informed decision that looks at the bigger picture of your business needs, your current IT infrastructure and your support costs.  Whatever route you decide to go, as long as it supports and enhances those three principles, you’ll be on the right track.

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