To cloud or not to cloud? This is a question I am getting frequently asked by clients and there is no right or wrong answer. As with everything else it depends on what your circumstances are and whether it is feasible for you at that time. For example if your broadband is only 1 Mb (which still happens in parts of Scotland) then going to a fully cloud based system for everything would not be a great idea. On the other hand if your data is confidential and can’t be stored outside of the UK (for instance) then using a cloud based backup like Dropbox would not work as their servers are based in the US.
Apart from the internet in general small businesses rely on three, maybe four things to be productive. These are emails, productivity suites (eg Microsoft Office), backups and maybe databases. You can run onsite versions of all of them or you could choose to use the cloud versions instead. Lets take a look at the differences.
Every business not matter what their size relies on emails. As a business you basically have two options – have an email server on site and host your own emails or you pay a company somewhere to host them for you. Unless you have a large number of users and the onsite expertise I would recommend you pay a company to host your emails as this is usually the most cost effective way. If you really need to keep control of your emails then you need an Exchange server and someone to maintain it which is not cheap.
At the moment chances are your business will be using some form of Microsoft Office. The advantage of the desktop version is clear – you switch on your laptop or PC and you can edit files while being offline. You don’t need an internet connection. But what happens if you use a tablet, Linux, Mac or even a smartphone? This is where online productivity suites come in. For a monthly fee you can access Office 365 or Google Docs (main two at the moment) through a web browser from any device. You files are stored on either Google Drive or Skydrive which means so long as you have an internet connection you can access them. The obvious downside is that if you don’t have access to the internet you can’t use them, however both Office 365 and Google Docs have offline modes (to varying degreees) which minimise the impact.
Personally I like to keep a local version of a productivity suite (in my case Libreoffice) on my systems. I do like the thought of accessing your files from anywhere which is why I use Dropbox (more on that later) but I like to edit them on a large monitor (call me old fashioned) using a mouse and keyboard. If you or your business does a lot of document editing on the move (ie tablets, smartphones) then an online productivity suite might be right up your alley.
For me this is the big one. I strongly encourage all of my clients to backup offsite and this is where cloud backups (like Dropbox) are ideal. You backup all your files into a single folder which automatically syncs online. The advantages should be clear cut. If anything happens to your business premises then your files are stored securely online and you can easily access them from any device connected to the internet. The disadvantages are that you pay a monthly fee for the previlege of having your files online and your data might be stored on servers which are located in countries you might not approve of.
There is nothing stopping you from using onsite backups (ie backup to a server which itself is backed up onsite) if that is what you want but you need to understand the risks. If the premises burns down or is flooded you lose everything. In this instance I would seriously take a look at online backups.
These can be online or onsite and again this depends on your circumstances. Online databases give you the advantage of accessing them from anywhere without needing to use VPN’s. If you are worried about data security then invest in an onsite server and a VPN solution to access the database from anywhere.
The cloud is here to stay and does offer some tremendous advantages like accessing you files from anywhere on any device. As with everything though it also has its disadvantages, mainly that if your broadband speed isn’t very fast your experience will be less than rosy. Don’t forget that if you lose the internet you cant access your files or emails either. Choices choices!!
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