Today's Technology: The Cloud

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For this month’s installment of Today’s Technology, we’ll be discussing the cloud. I’m sure you’ve heard someone reference this mysterious cloud before, but if you’re having trouble swallowing this technological phenomenon, let me break it down in easy-to-understand bites.

What Exactly Is the Cloud?

To understand the cloud and how it works, you need to know what service the cloud is replacing. Before the cloud, there were only on-premise platforms (also called hosted solutions) to save your information. That means a company would buy huge servers with storage space they thought would last for decades, have an in-house firewall program to protect their information and manage the upkeep and software updates itself. With the cloud, a company hosts your information on their servers.

“In its simplest form, cloud computing is a  computing service hosted by someone else that has certain attributes,” said Allen Falcon, CEO of Cumulus Global, a company that helps small- and mid-sized businesses and others by delivering cloud computing solutions, located outside of Boston, Massachusetts. “First, you should only be paying for [the storage space] you use. Secondly, it should be easily accessible — ideally from any Internet-connected device. Third, it should have the perception of infinite resources. If you’re using a cloud service and you need more storage, you should be able to call up and say, ‘Double the amount of my disc space.’ They should provide it almost immediately.”

What Can You Use on the Cloud?

Some people may think the cloud is only good for saving backups of your pictures and music, but for businesses in particular, there are numerous services available when using the cloud.

“The cloud is the ability to access services as a consumer,” said Chris Ciborowski, co-founder and managing partner of Nebulaworks, a cloud solutions integrator and IT consultancy firm located in Orange County, California. “The services can be pretty much anything you can imagine. If you think of yourself as a consumer, you can consume storage and you could use the cloud for your pictures or things you need online all the time. The cloud can also be used for archival purposes. Think of it like a safety deposit box backup. It can be used for shipping documents around, too. Say you need to provide forms or contracts you want e-signatures on but don’t want to have to deal with paper. You can ship those files around [via the cloud] and have the auditing capabilities behind that paperless transaction. There are also typical things, such as email, calendaring, etc. The future is, as a consumer, instead of having to worry about figuring out what you need, you can just look online, essentially pull together any number of services and stitch them together as you need instead of trying to build everything yourself.”

Why is the Cloud Beneficial for Businesses?

This is an answer to the classic, “Well, what’s in it for me?” question. However, this time it’s, “What’s in it for my business?” In a nutshell, it will most likely save you money.

“Cloud computing brings enterprise, best-in-class services to small businesses at an affordable cost,” Falcon said. “It gives your business more capability for less money. It changes technology spending from periodically large capital expenditures to an ongoing operating expense that will scale up or down with your business.”

Even better, you pay a monthly fee rather than a massive lump sum.

“You pay a subscription price as opposed to paying millions of dollars upfront,” said Andrew Leigh, vice president of Marketing and Alliances at Jitterbit, a company that manages cloud integration solutions, located in Alameda, California. “The total cost of ownership is a fraction of what it is for on-premise.”

Ciborowski notes another reason cloud services benefit businesses.

“It’s an agility discussion; the ability to pick up and roll out services rapidly,” Ciborowski said. “You can move data around and you don’t have to worry about picking a provider and being locked in with a single solution for the rest of your business cycle.”

Another benefit, especially for the quick lube industry, is that there are point-of-sale (POS) systems that are cloud based, too.

“There are cloud-based POS systems,” Falcon said. “There are also cloud-based accounting systems and marketing systems that have built data interfaces to POS systems.”

For your POS system, there’s a difference between local-hosted solutions and server-based solutions.

“If you had a POS system that was a local-hosted solution, you would buy the proprietary computers and put them in your shop. Your data lives on those computers,” said Ash Bullard, vice president of Sales and Marketing at PM Attendant. “Some of [the local-based solutions] use the cloud as a backup scenario; they’ll update the data that’s on the local computer to the cloud. Our [server-based solution] means your data lives on the cloud. A customer can pick up their phone and login to their account. It doesn’t matter where you are or what platform you use (iPad, tablet, smartphone, laptop, etc.), you’ll be able to log in. Another big advantage is when it comes time to update [the software]. When we update our Check Chart data or we have software updates, we’re doing that on our server. So, when somebody logs in, they have the latest software version without doing anything.”

Is It Safe to Store Information on the Cloud?

When I first heard about the cloud, I imagined all of my personal information floating around in space, available for anyone to pluck out of the air to use maliciously. Rest assured, however; your information is secure on cloud servers.

“I believe there’s fear, uncertainty and doubt being spread by ‘legacy’ IT companies (IBM, etc.) that the cloud is not secure and there are issues using the cloud when it comes to security, data protection and auditability,” Ciborowski said. “The reality is, that’s not true. Think of it like this; if you’re a small business owner, can you afford to have a Chief Security Officer and a team of people that’s constantly monitoring company threats, as well as the vulnerabilities of the software you’re putting together? Do you have the ability to fund a team to manage that, stay on top of it and continue to update things? The answer is no. Companies that manage your cloud services spend a tremendous amount of money to make sure those systems are secure and the access methods are protected.”

Falcon notes good habits, as well as being choosy with the vendors you do business with, will help make the cloud more secure.

“You should pick the vendors you work with carefully and understand what they’re doing to protect your data and whether or not they’ve had data breaches or other security issues,” Falcon said. “The other part of it is good habits practiced by you and your employees. Most of the security breaches happening are compromised user identities where someone is able to figure out someone else’s username and password and they use that to gain access. Some of the tools and techniques we recommend to prevent this from happening include: two-factor authentication, website filtering and monitoring, and cloud-based endpoint protection services. It is important to note that users need protection when using their smartphones and tablets, as well as their laptops and desktops.”

In the end, using the cloud for your business is a personal decision.

“Don’t [switch to the cloud] because everyone is saying you should,” Falcon said. “Really start with the value you want to create for your business and what you’re trying to achieve form a business standpoint. Whatever those business objectives are, let them drive the technology decisions and then pick the cloud where it’s the most efficient and cost-effective way to be successful.”

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