Should You Move Your Small Business to the Cloud?

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The Cloud’s Dark Side

The biggest misgiving that most businesses have about the cloud involves security, according to two recent surveys.

In a December 2009 Forrester Research survey, 51 percent of SMB participants said that security and privacy concerns were their top reasons for not using cloud services.

Similarly, respondents to an IDC survey in late 2009 said that their biggest worries about cloud computing were, in descending order, security, availability, and performance.

It’s not difficult to find instances of security breaches in cloud computing, of course. On the other hand, you can’t entirely eliminate risk from any computing environment. Intruders may hack into files stored on your business’s own servers or hard drives. Hard drives may fail. Unencrypted information stored on laptops may lead to identity theft or lawsuits when the laptops go missing.

Cloud computing security lapses are “like airplane disasters,” says Rosenfeld. “Trillions of transactions happen without any problem every day. You only hear about it when something goes wrong.” Rosenfeld adds, “I know enough both to worry about [cloud computing] security and to not give it too much thought.”

Here are some other commonly cited concerns about cloud computing:

• Privacy: How much data are cloud companies like Google collecting about you, and how might that information be used?

• Availability: Will your cloud service go down unexpectedly, leaving you without access to critical customer records, e-mail, or other information for hours or more? Gmail outages are widely reported, but Salesforce.com and other well-established services have gone dark on occasion, too.

• Data loss: Some online storage sites have shut down abruptly, sending users scrambling to recover their data, sometimes with only 24 hours' notice. And T-Mobile Sidekick users were unhappy to discover that their personal data had been erased from their devices--especially when Microsoft said that the data loss was irrevocable. (A few days later, Microsoft announced that it had recovered most of the data.)

• Data mobility and ownership: Will you be able to share data between different cloud services? If you decide to stop using a cloud service, can you get all of your data back? What format will it be in? How can you be certain that the cloud service will destroy all of your data once you’ve severed ties with it?

• Tool robustness: Cloud-based tools frequently aren't as powerful as software applications. Google Docs, for instance, lacks a number of features that Microsoft Office has had for years, such as the ability to track changes in a text file.

Tips for Moving Into the Cloud

Once you’ve weighed the pros and cons, you may be ready to take your first steps into cloud computing. Before you do, consider these tips from small businesses that have already made the transition.

• Start small. Cloud computing is a different way of working from what most people are used to, and building familiarity and trust takes time, says Trevor Doerksen, CEO and founder of MoboVivo, a 12-member video content portal/software company. Doerksen recommends starting small--for example, by having two or more workers collaborate on a Google Docs file. Once team members grow more comfortable with the new work environment, you can start adding more cloud services to the mix.

• Think big. Can the service you’re considering scale to meet your needs as your business grows? If not, keep looking.

• Make sure you can export your data in standard formats. You'll want to be able to export in the formats used by Word, Excel, and other programs you use. That way, you can back up (and access) your data locally or move it easily to another service later.

• Read the agreement closely. To use the service, you’ll most likely have to accept an endless service-level agreement or other contract at the outset. Read it carefully to ensure that you know what you’re paying for, what the service provider’s privacy policy is, whether there are fees for early termination, and so on.

• Get creative. Look for ways to use free or low-cost cloud tools instead of more-expensive ones, suggests Doerksen. For example, his team uses free Google Docs spreadsheets as a basic CRM system, rather than springing for a paid CRM cloud service.

• Evaluate more than one service before deciding. Most services offer a free trial, and “you can usually figure out in 10 minutes whether the service’s user interface will drive you mad or is easy to use,” says Rosenfeld.

• Consider open-source cloud services. This arrangement encourages third-party developers to build add-ons that make a cloud-based service even more feature-rich. Plus, it allows you to create your own tools for using the service that are unique to your business.

• Don’t be afraid. It makes sense to cautiously approach any big change in how you do business, and this certainly applies to moving to the cloud. But many feel that the business world is already making the transition to cloud computing, and--given the lousy economy--now is a good time to make the transition.

“I can’t think of any company that shouldn’t try it,” says Doerksen. “If you don’t, you’re missing out on an opportunity to prepare your business for the future.”

James A. Martin is a PCWorld contributing editor and a coauthor of Getting Organized in the Google Era (Broadway Books).

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