No Wonder Small Businesses Are Confused About the Cloud

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A survey released this week paints an interesting picture of small businesses working in the cloud--and that picture is one of uncertainty.

"The cloud"--essentially outsourcing computing tasks of any number of varieties--has been the hot-button topic of the technology industry over the last couple of years. It's often suggested that the cloud is a natural fit for small and midsize businesses (SMBs), which have greater agility and less existing legacy architecture than their enterprise peers.

And yet, less than one third of small businesses have heard of the cloud, according to a Web survey of 1800 people by Newtek Business Services, which markets technology services to SMBs.

It seems far-fetched that this could be possible.You can't go to an airport anywhere in North America without seeing massive ads trumpeting the age of the cloud, and Microsoft's "To the Cloud" TV ads are ubiquitous.

That would suggest that not many small businesses know what the cloud is. But perhaps more disturbingly, even those who have heard of cloud computing largely don't get it, according to Newtek's study. Of those who were familiar with the concept of cloud computing, only one could actually describe what it means.

That would mean that about one quarter of 30 percent--about seven percent--of small business really get the cloud.

The sad fact is, cloud providers are not doing a very good job of educating small businesses about what the cloud is, and more importantly, why they should care.

It starts with the very definition. As "the cloud" has become the buzz phrase of the industry, more and more companies have sought to brand themselves in cloud terms. Provide a Web service or software-as-a-service (Saas)? That's cloud. Outsourced IT infrastructure? That's cloud. Hosting services? Cloud. Internet-connected applications? Cloud. Thin client computers or other end-user computing devices that connect to the Internet? Cloud.

And it gets worse when the ads get involved. Particularly, Microsoft's "To the Cloud" ad campaigns muddy the water. Watch a few of them, and you come away with the idea that the cloud will let you watch your favorite TV show over the Internet while you're stuck at the airport, or share a photo you've just doctored with your friends. "Yay, cloud!"

On the other side, many enterprise vendors focus on the infrastructure that's used by their large customers to roll out huge internal private clouds. Or they provide broad slogans that say nothing, like EMC's "The journey to the private cloud starts now" campaign.

Between those two extremes, there's a lack of genuine education for small businesses about what the "cloud" means, and more importantly, what the benefits can be to customers.

Small businesses need practical advice on how to get to the cloud, and even reassurance on some of the potentially concerning issues that surround the cloud. For instance, at this week's Citrix Synergy event in San Francisco, Citrix CTO Simon Crosby tackled the concern around cloud security and availability, particularly in the wake of high-profile cloud outages like those suffered by Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Skype, and others. Crosby borrowed the old automobile vs. airline safety analogy: A plane crash gets a lot more news attention than does a car crash, but statistically speaking, those traveling by plane are a great deal safer than drivers. The same logic holds with major public cloud outages when compared to the kind of downtime suffered by many on-premise applications every day.

The need for education is underscored by a report from Web host Verio. Its study of 500 SMB decision-makers showed that two thirds were unsure if they'd commit the cloud at this point. But, if "provided proper knowledge and education," 20 percent said they were likely to implement a cloud solution within the next 12 months, while about half that number would be looking to make the jump within six months.

If cloud players want to realize the opportunity that they themselves have said awaits small businesses in a cloud environment, they need to respond with more education, instruction and guidance, less hype and fewer buzzwords.

Otherwise, small businesses may well continue to be lost in the cloud.

Robert Dutt is a veteran IT journalist and blogger. He covers the Canadian IT technology solution provider scene daily at . You can also find him on Twitter .

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