How to conduct your business in the cloud

In part two of our series on technology in business we look at how you can take your business to the cloud, better secure your data and help your employees work anywhere

CloudYou’ve probably heard about the power of the cloud and need little introduction to the concept – web servers storing your files so you can access them from anywhere with an Internet connection and not simply from your desktop computer in the office. But you might not realise just how much the concept can help your business, no matter what you do, or how big it is.

You see, the cloud isn’t just for huge corporations that can afford their own IT divisions, or for personal users who want to back up holiday snaps and songs they’ve downloaded. In fact a recent survey found that the most users of Amazon Web Service (AWS, the cloud platform many other companies including Netflix and Dropbox use for all their data) are SMEs– small to medium sized enterprises.

In other words, why haven’t you joined them yet? Whether you’re running a corner shop or a fast-growing medium-sized business), it’s time you took advantage of the cloud’s potential and made your life easier: so here’s how.

Storing all your files
You’ve probably used the cloud for your email for years without even realising the fact. If you’ve ever logged into a Gmail, Hotmail, Outlook or Yahoo! Mail address through the web to find all your messages and attachments ready to go, you’ve seen what the cloud is capable of.

You can also use the cloud to store your files, not just your messages: be they documents, photos, PowerPoint presentations or code. That’s handy for personal users, as a safe way to store their precious photos and memories somewhere outside of your own home as a backup. But it’s also a great way to secure and improve your business. You can make a start by backing up all your files. After all, theft and fire can be just as devastating for hard drives as for paperwork.

You need a cloud storage service to start with, like one of the ones in our head-to-head test over the page. The important thing to know is that using them is painless. What’s clever about these services is that they can integrate right into your computers.

Install the software, select a folder or drive to share, and then everything in it will be automatically uploaded as soon as it’s created or modified, so you can keep right on working as before. That way you don’t even have to remember to back your work up – it just happens. You can then access your files from anywhere, even through your mobile phone.

The cloud is about services too
It’s important to note that some of these services simply store your files. Depending on what type they are, you can’t always edit them from everywhere in the same app. This is particularly the case with images and complicated spreadsheets.

But the cloud isn’t just for storing your documents or inbox. To make your life even easier, almost every essential service can be transferred or even outsourced to the cloud, including those relevant to your customers and your employees. For a start, there’s your regular office suite of applications. If you rely heavily on Excel, Word and PowerPoint alongside Outlook, Microsoft now makes it easy to edit all your documents from anywhere using Office 365. Even better, Google Apps – the corporate equivalent of a Google account, with access to Gmail, Google Drive and Google Calendar – could save you money on a Microsoft Office 365 subscription. If you only ever do light document editing, Google Docs is a perfectly efficient word processor these days. It can even handle Track Changes for easy collaborating.

There are equivalent cloud services for different types of software too. Think of it as outsourcing. Payroll – a serious headache in any company – can be done through cloud software such as PaySuite, while you can log into QuickBooks anywhere for managing your accounts. Websites like SalesBinder, meanwhile, can help you keep track of your inventory.

Growing your business
A collection of online cloud services will make your life much easier as a small business owner, especially when they can take much of the hassle out of number-crunching for you as well.

Grow your business to a large enough size, however, and you’ll find you have other IT issues to think about– running a website, customer relations management (CRM), online security, data protection, the software integral to your company’s product. There’s a lot to take into account, and you’ll find yourself gravitating more and more to the small number of companies that offer a bigger suite of cloud applications.

There’s Microsoft’s rapidly growing Azure platform, for instance, which lets developers build websites in the cloud, store data and run virtual machines (so that one powerful server can act like multiple computers running at once), and provides around-the-clock service if you have any issues. It’s the same platform that runs services like Skype and Xbox Live on, so, if it’s good enough for Microsoft…

The one you’re likely to end up with, however, regardless of what your business is, is Amazon. AWS is a collection of cloud services run by the retail giant, and they’re popular for a reason: they’re phenomenally good value. Its biggest core services, Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) and Simple Storage Service (S3) are must-haves for any growing company: the latter is the virtual equivalent of an attic, offering vast amounts of storage space for very little, while the former is a very powerful service that lets you run applications in the cloud.

The advantage of this isn’t just convenience, price or the ability to compute in a region of the world nearest your users – it’s scale. If your business or website receives a sudden surge or spike, it can quickly scale up to offer your services to a much larger audience without any downtime, which means more profit for everyone. Now that’s cloud power.

Two steps to security
High-profile corporate hackings just go to show that you have to be extra vigilant these days, and passwords alone won’t cut it, even if you change them regularly. Helpfully, a lot of services, such as Google and Dropbox, provide an extra layer of security, with features like two-step authentication, which requires you to confirm a code sent to your phone whenever an account is accessed from a new device. You should never rest easy with IT security, but this precaution can do a lot to prevent identity fraud, so be sure to turn it on for yourself and your employees where you can.

Run your own cloud
Want to run your own cloud storage solution that doesn’t involve third parties? Large corporations regularly do this at huge expense, building their own data centres, but there are ways to do it on a shoestring as well. You have a couple of options, though they’ll require more upfront cost and digital elbow grease. The open-source OwnCloud lets you set up your own Dropbox-style accounts, with all your data securely uploaded to a server – but it’s you who will have to provide this, or find a web host for it.

Another alternative is BitTorrent Sync, which can help you send very large files to others very quickly and cheaply, and can be fashioned into a free Dropbox alternative. BitTorrent has a bad reputation as one of the most popular transfer methods for pirated videos, music and software, but in itself it’s just a means of transferring files, and perfectly legal, so don’t let that put you off.

Always read the Ts and Cs
As simple as these services can make online storage and work, it’s important that you check the fine print thoroughly before committing. Will your business thrive within the confines of their Acceptable Use policies? Are you happy with their privacy agreements? Some services also create economies by keeping only one version of a file in the cloud, even if you have duplicates, which can be an issue if the files are sensitive for your customers. There’s plenty of competition in this  area, so be sure to keep looking until you find one that suits you.

The return of the thin client
The cloud doesn’t just provide security and convenience. It can cut your costs for office equipment too. That lofty dream of a paperless office is still a long way off, but in the meantime cloud-based operating systems like Google’s Chrome OS on Chromebook laptops can save you a lot of money. Since all they require is an Internet connection for the browser, they don’t require expensive hardware or a Windows licence, meaning that they’re often extremely cheap. You can stop worrying about anti-virus software too, since it’s all web-based.

Google Drive vs Dropbox vs Box.net vs OneDrive

The pros and cons of all the major services, head to head

Google Drive
US$9.99 per month for 1TB
Google’s excellent file storage service works seamlessly across browsers, PCs, Macs and smartphones, and the search giant is always aggressively driving down the price, offering more storage for your money. Searching through files is quick and easy. In fact, the only real issue is that editing marked-up Microsoft Word documents in the accompanying Google Docs is still a messy and convoluted process, and not recommended for any work you’d present to a client. Google Apps is the well-priced enterprise equivalent, giving you a Gmail interface with your own work email, calendars, a big chunk of shared storage and free video calls too.

OneDrive
US$6.99 per month for 1TB
Microsoft’s cloud service is a relative newcomer, but not to be discounted. It’s cheap, with solid cross-platform support for whatever devices you use – it even comes built into Windows 8.1 machines, and the subscription price also includes Office 365 access, which is much more powerful than Google Docs. Perhaps best of all though is the Fetch feature on Windows, which lets you access files from your computer, even if you forgot to put them in your OneDrive folder. If you rely on Windows rather than Mac at work, this may be the one to go for.

Dropbox
US$9.99 per month for 1TB
Dropbox can’t be beaten for simplicity and support across platforms: it really is painless to set up. You just install the software, pick a folder, and everything within that will be uploaded to the cloud, and amended every time you edit it – Dropbox even saves your revision history for 30 days should you make a mistake somehow and need to retrieve the old version of a file. Simple ‘tick and sync’ icons by all your files act as a useful visual guide to make sure everything has been uploaded, and as an added piece of mind, all your files are uploaded with superstrength 256-bit AES encryption. The downside? While there is a perfectly serviceable app, it doesn’t integrate quite so flawlessly as Google Drive does on Android phones and tablets.

Box.NET
US$15 per month for unlimited storage
While Box offers plenty of free storage (5GB) for individual users, it comes into its own for corporate use. Unlike Google or Dropbox, it offers Business subscribers unlimited storage instead of a capped service, and it has a healthy community of developers who’ve worked to integrate it into important software tools like Salesforce.com. Previewing files online is also painless. One drawback is that Box doesn’t support Linux computers, however, unlike Dropbox.