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HOT TOPIC for 2023 - What about "Cloud" technologies for small business?

One of our Senior Business Technology Consultants, Brett Kitchin, talks business and evaluates whether there's any substance behind the hype that is "the cloud".

We've heard "The Cloud" bandied about for a few years now. Will it really improve your business? What are the risks? What are the benefits? What does it cost? They are all important questions that every business owner should ask before embarking on any IT systems expenditure. Firstly though, lets understand what Cloud Technologies are and dispel a few myths.

Cloud technologies are not *new* in themselves, but rather we are referring to internet based computing with a new buzzword. The idea of using software delivered as a service through your web-browser, or connecting to servers (or remote-controlling desktop PCs) stored in internet-connected datacentres is actually quite old.

In fact, back in the year 2000 I was part of a products development team at Solution 6 Holdings (ASX: SOH, and now owned by MYOB) where we were trialling the concept of delivering software hosted in a farm of servers at the Pitt Street Telstra Exchange. A couple of accounting firms connected to the system via their web browsers, back when Netscape Navigator was still the most popular web browser. At the time ADSL was only just starting to be rolled out in Sydney CBD, and we were experimenting with Citrix NFUSE and satellite connections for speed & latency testing with pre-beta versions of Citrix speedscreen technology. We even trialled the Microsoft Office suite being delivered for end-user use via a web browser. The idea was simple: Accounting firms could work anywhere in the world with just an internet connection and web browser. Staff could work as productively from a beach in the Bahamas as if at their offices in the hustle of Sydney CBD. No backups or software updates to worry about, no equipment to purchase, just rent the infrastructure complete with software and maintenance services for one low monthly fee and pay as you go.

At the time this idea seemed revolutionary, but now we are twenty-three years down the track and the concept behind cloud technologies is just the same. Microsoft Office delivered via the internet? Office 365! An accounting system online? Xero! Managed services, hardware infrastructure & backups all in one low monthly fee? Yeah, that is what we do at Accountable IT Group in conjunction with Enterprise 55 Technologies and vendors like Telstra, Aussie-Broadband, Optus & iinet.

What has changed? The ideas are the same but the consumer is now much more confident about the reliability and security of online systems. Internet is now accessible by pretty much everyone at decent speeds and NBN & 5G is being rolled out now to further improve the situation. Software technology has also caught up: Microsoft-HyperV/Linux-KVM/VMware/CitrixXen have all developed "virtualisation" platforms allowing cost effective infrastructure management in data centres. The constraints of skilled worker availability is forcing employers to consider hiring staff from diverse geographies and to offer them flexibility of hours, variables that can only be effectively supported via good "connected" technologies that "the cloud" offers.

What are the risks? Most people I speak to have just four concerns: security, speed, reliability & cost. In the following paragraphs we will break these down and consider them carefully:

Security: After drawing a few diagrams on client whiteboards about how their current computer system is connected, they realise that their current non cloud computer system is far less secure than they thought. It is a revelation that all their trust is threatened by the fact that their computers are connected to the internet 24x7 anyway, their $99 "firewall" from Harvey Norman is their only frontline defense, and the "Free" antivirus suite they are using is simply inadequate. Suddenly the security offered by datacentres is decidedly "Alcatraz" by comparison. It seems to have escaped their attention that they have been backing up online for the past year with their present IT provider, and that the physical security in their building (locks & alarms) is far less sophisticated than those offered by retina-scan access, multi-factor passworded, high-security clearance and pistol equipped security-guarded datacentres. The sticky note on the monitor with the pets name written as the password also escapes logical security scrutiny. Basically, small businesses in Australia make a mockery of the word "security" and a move toward a datacentre "cloud" solution would go a long way to removing a significant amount of risk for most businesses. Do we not cringe when we consider how we're ignoring our legal responsibilities as Directors to make reasonable attempts to ensure that our client data is secure & remains confidential? The cloud can help us bridge the gap to our obligations here too.

Speed: Many associate the internet with looking at the hourglass or other progress-bar type indicators while they wait for a website to load. Fair enough. But those speed issues are more a function of low-cost residential-grade internet services that are dished up to the consumer who knows no better. Before writing off "cloud" technology for business just because it takes ages to download that YouTube video, perhaps take the time to get a demonstration of how a properly setup cloud solution can be FASTER than working off your local PC. Indeed, try logging into one of our demo sessions - right from your own PC and see how fast a system can be!

Reliability: Again, we are talking about a mindset based on historical performance of internet service providers offering low cost residential grade systems. Have you considered that you are more likely to have an electricity outage at your place of work than an internet outage. Think about it. If the power goes off, everything stops. I say EVERYTHING because nobody works in the dark and the phones, printers, copiers, air conditioning & computers do not work without power. A power outage means people go home for a paid day off with zero productivity. Conversely, Cloud solutions offer a facility whereby you can send your staff home in the event of power outage, or to a wifi cafe with their laptops and WORK CAN CONTINUE. What if the power goes off at the data centre? Any datacentre worth your business has complete failover protection for power outages, with large diesel powered generators that can power the systems for weeks at a time. An internet outage occurs? Revert to your backup line, or tether your iphone to your laptop to keep working, or go down to the local cafe with free wifi. There are strong arguments that show cloud solutions as being more robust.

Cost: If all this cloud-based stuff is so sophisticated and has so much security, speed and power protections, surely it is cost prohibitive? Well perhaps you should do a real evaluation. You may be surprised to learn that most ROI analysis show a neat saving through using cloud technologies. Have you considered the tax & cashflow benefits to your business by making IT a true scalable operational expense rather than a capex & long term depreciation issue? Of course, every business is different and so you should invite us to discuss the specifics of your business in context of cloud technologies.

In short, there are many good reasons to explore cloud technologies. It is mature and not so revolutionary. Without a doubt it is the way of the future, it is just a question of timing.

  • - Brett Kitchin, Business Technology Consultant

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