It’s the buzzword of the moment but what does the cloud really mean to those of us who don’t converse in techno speak or run vast IT empires? Should we really care about it?
Many of us probably switch off at the mere mention of “the cloud” but unwittingly we’ve been using it for years. One of the most popular cloud applications is Hotmail – all you need is a device capable of connecting to the internet and away you go – email from the cloud. Obviously this is a simplistic example but it perfectly illustrates the power and the reach of this not so new technology.
As private individuals we’re slowly but surely increasing our use of the cloud and seeing the benefits of services, applications and data being available across it. A key growth area at the moment is data storage. You see the look of fear in people’s eyes when you ask if they backup their thousands of precious family digital photographs regularly. Everyone thinks about doing it but how many of us really go to the hassle and time of doing so? Not many. The answer? The Cloud.
There are now many providers who deliver a service to backup your data to the cloud for a few pounds a month – or even for free in some cases. If your computer decides to die – no worries – just pop out and buy a new one. No struggling to get your data back, just connect to the internet and all your precious memories are back.
Big business has been using cloud technology for some years now. When you get the phone call from the survey company asking for a few minutes of your time, they don’t have a person in a call centre manually dialling your number from a list. Instead the contact centre staff connect across the internet to a service that automatically dials hundreds of numbers at once predictively and hands your call to an operator the moment you pick up the receiver.
By embracing such a cloud based service these types of businesses have increased the average utilisation of call centre staff from around 40% to higher than 60% as well as driving down costs in capital expenditure. If their business expands there’s no need for costly investment in more hardware, more software licences and more support staff – all they do it buy more of the cloud service for an increase in the monthly fee.
All businesses great and small
The SME and NGO sectors are now beginning to utilise the benefits of the cloud. While big business has mainly used the cloud to drive staff efficiencies, smaller companies can benefit from savings in high expenditure items such as software. Why pay hundreds of pounds for a version of Microsoft Office that is inevitably out of date within a year? Instead you can pay a monthly fee to use it from the cloud. Small organisations understandably object to the high costs of running their own IT systems such as email but thanks to the cloud they can now dispense with having any local IT systems in the office and the associated support costs.
One could argue all a company needs now is an internet connection and a device to connect. An additional benefit of utilising cloud based technology is the ability to allow staff to work from anywhere with an internet connection. This provides staff with flexibility and many organisations have seen an increase in staff work rates by using remote working over the cloud.
Beyond the silver lining
Obviously there is slightly more to the cloud than just a silver lining. One of the biggest concerns is data security. Passing information over the internet is an inherently risky action. Certain areas of business have purposely avoided putting data into the cloud for fear of it reaching unintended recipients. The internet has no international borders, yet legislation prevents data from crossing some of these borders. Other concerns surround compliance to the Data Protection Act, the act within the UK that ensures businesses protect our personal data and use it responsibly.
If you’re passing data into the cloud how do you know it’s safe and conforms to local regulations? It’s these concerns that highlight why using the cloud should be considered properly before a decision to move to it is taken. While it can be difficult and time consuming ensuring data is secure within the cloud there are plenty of solutions to ensuring it is safe.
The previous example given around contact centres is a prime example of end businesses working with service providers to ensure adequate security is in place. A vast majority of contact centres handle payments of one sort or another. None of us take a second thought about handing over our credit card details to these centres that use the cloud for their services. Thankfully the card merchants such as VISA and Mastercard have produced a set of regulations to ensure any business taking card payments conform to certain security levels known as the PCI-DSS standards. These standards cover the use of the cloud as well as more traditional methods such as the telephone.
Weigh it up
As with any element in the world of technology, it’s wise not to rely on any single solution. It is quite possible to backup data into the cloud, maybe even desirable, but what if you couldn’t access the internet for a period of time? Wherever you find yourself entirely reliant on a cloud service (e.g email or storage) we’d recommend considering alternative solutions that you can rely on in scenarios where you can’t access the internet or if the cloud service provider experiences a major data loss (it’s not unknown!). Good Business Continuity Planning (BCP) can be key for these types of hopefully rare situations. The risks of loss of service versus the benefits of using the cloud should be carefully weighed up.
The cloud provides organisations with agility, vastly reduces capital expenditure and also provides a predictable operations cost model. It isn’t just for big business – it’s for everyone and all organisations can embrace the benefits of this powerful future technology that is here today. Security, regulations and risks should obviously be seriously considered, but the cloud can clearly be of benefit to many businesses.