Cloud computing

There’s a lot of talk about cloud computing right now, because it’s the latest thing. I bet you’ve been doing it for a while in some form, but maybe it’s time to look at it a little more seriously.

What is cloud computing?

The cloud is a short name for “somewhere on the internet”  and at its simplest, cloud computing means you put all your data in ‘the cloud’ i.e. store it” somewhere on the internet”.

In practice this “somewhere” has to be pretty safe, so it could be Google, or a service such as Dropbox (there are plenty of others).  Storing data in the cloud means that you can get to it wherever you are, provided, of course, you have an internet connection.

If you’ve used a service like Dropbox to store your data, or uploaded photographs to a site like Flickr then you’ve been dabbling with the cloud.

There’s obviously a whole lot more to the cloud than this. For example there are on-line CRM (customer relationship management) systems available at not a lot of money where you can keep your entire customer database on line, so that you can access it wherever you happen to be.  These products can be pretty sophisticated, incorporating mail programs, reminders etc; all the sorts of features that up until now have only been provided on desk-bound computers.  With a cloud system and an iPad, you can conduct all of your business wherever you are.

You don’t need a heavy duty computer to lug around either.  You can use applications that live in the cloud.  The most obvious is Google Docs.  This application sits within Google, on the web, and you use it through your browser.  And it’s free.  Have a look at the whole suite of Google apps – there’s quite a variety there.  There’s bound to be something you can use.

Is this relevant to the 3rd sector?  Of course.  If you’re looking after a large patch of the country and spend a lot of time away from the office, this sort of system is ideal.  Instead of wasting time looking out of a train window, you can do real work and get much more out of your day.

And, if all of your team use the same software, and store the data in the cloud, you can all get to it easily. Sharing of information is much easier via the cloud.  You can have team members spread around the country, even the world, and co-operate on documents.

Is it secure?

Your data is probably more secure than if you keep it yourself. Think about it.

Do you have a team of software geeks who spend their whole working lives protecting data, countering hackers, viruses etc?   No?   Well, Google does.

Do you have a robust backup and restore system, so that your data is protected?   No?    Well, Google does.

Google aren’t 100% secure, but then neither are you. They work really hard on security, because they have a reputation to maintain, and they have a lot more resources than you do. Provided you do your bit and use decent passwords and are generally sensible about it all, your data is safe.

Why bother with the cloud?

If you’re a small organisation with a computer network and servers and other stuff, it costs you money to maintain all that hardware. And you need to keep the software up to date as well. It can be a right royal pain. Going to the cloud takes all that hassle away. Your data is protected and the software you use is always up to date.

And you can work anywhere.  If your office burns to the ground (happy thought) you can still function, because your data is stored elsewhere.  If you go to a meeting and have forgotten a file, you can access it, because your data is stored in the cloud.

It’s easy to share data especially if your team is spread over the country, or even the globe.

How do I use it?

There are a couple of options.

You can use a free service like Google. There are others, but I mention Google because it’s probably the most well known.

The disadvantage here is you’re stuck with what they give you. You won’t get any customisation from free services.  On the flip side, Google is free.

An alternative is to go with a cloud supplier. With these guys, you pay a monthly fee, usually based on the number of workstations you have, and they supply you with software, data storage etc etc. You can sometimes get Microsoft products as part of this deal, so if you are hooked into, say, Word, this is a good way to go. It’s not desperately cheap, but it can be very cost effective. Worth looking into.

Any advice?

  • First, think carefully about what you want. If you’re not fussed about being mobile, it may still be worth looking at the cloud to reduce your overheads on maintaining a network etc.
  • Have a play. I suggest you start with Google, because it’s easy and it’s free. If it works for you, then fine. If not, there are others you can use – Zoho is another one that I’ve played with. If none of the free services are suitable, you may need to find a supplier who will sort it out for you. Go with someone who’s been around a while. Go with someone that the commercial organisations use, because it’s more likely they know what they’re talking about.
  • Don’t rush into it.
  • If you go down the paid route, get someone who knows what they’re doing to check through the contract.
  • Educate all your staff in the right way to use the system, and make sure they use decent, secure passwords. You’d be surprised and probably horrified just how many passwords are ‘password’, or ‘pswd’. It’s scary.

I hope this short introduction has been useful. The cloud is growing in popularity, and it’s proving its worth in all sorts of areas. It’s not for everybody, but it’s worth thinking about.

There’s lots of material on the web. This is just one link to an “Idiot’s Guide” page (the guys who write those yellow coloured books)