Who is who in cloud computing?

cloud network diagram

No matter what business you’re in, the cloud can help you punch above your weight.

Cloud computing grants SMBs access to powerful tools that were previously restricted to the big end of town. They can be divided into two main categories; Software as a Service (SaaS) and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). Both are really forms of outsourcing – handing over maintenance to the experts so you can get on with doing what you do best.

The flexibility and scalability of cloud services can make them a good fit for growing businesses. Turning a significant capital expenditure into an operational expense also helps put enterprise-grade tools within reach of SMBs.

Software as a Service lets your staff run software packages in their web browser on their computer rather than as an application on their desktop. This makes it easier for staff to work on the go and hotdesk between computers, while simplifying software licensing. Central storage also ensures staff are working with up-to-date data.

The cloud isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition, and many SMBs first turn to it for access to specialist software tools. For many, their initial taste of SaaS comes via cloud-based customer relationship management suites such as Salesforce.com, Microsoft Dynamics, SugarCRM and Highrise. These make it easier for your staff to access important customer details while they’re in the office or on the road.

You’ll find SMB-oriented cloud services for practically every task, from Acumatica for enterprise resource planning and Yellowfin for business intelligence, to MYOB LiveAccounts for financials and Basecamp for project management. SaaS also makes it easier for SMBs to improve their interactions with customers, with services such as Magento for e-commerce and Desk.com for customer support.

Along with these specialist SaaS players, you’ll also find a range of broad cloud service providers which could meet many of your businesses’ needs, such as Microsoft Online Services, Google Apps, Zoho, NetSuite, Sage and Aplicor. Microsoft, Google and Zoho also offer online office suites with powerful collaboration tools, making it easy for staff to work in teams whether they’re on opposite sides of the room or the globe. Citrix Online and Cisco WebEx also provide a range of collaboration tools which include online meetings, remote desktop access and remote technical support.

The cloud can also put enterprise-grade computing power at your fingertips thanks to Infrastructure as a Service. IaaS is particularly attractive for SMBs looking to grow but lacking an in-house IT department.

Web-based email or perhaps a hosted Microsoft Exchange server is often an SMB’s first experience of IaaS, eliminating the need to manage an in-house mail server. Businesses looking to overhaul their voice communications might also consider the flexibility of voice over IP (VoIP) combined with a cloud-based PBX, from the likes of MyNetFone or Maxotel.

SMBs looking for online storage, backup and file-sharing might consider consumer-grade services but should evaluate the extra business-grade features of services such as Box.net and Ninefold. Amazon’s Simple Storage Service (S3) and Microsoft Windows Azure are also powerful storage platforms compatible with a wide range of services.

Amazon, Microsoft and several other players also go beyond pre-configured online IaaS packages to offer Platform as a Service (PaaS). This offers virtual hardware in the cloud on which your business can deploy any kind of server operating system. You only pay for the processing power you use, making PaaS a flexible and cost-effective way to temporarily boost your computing power when the business needs it most.


Adam Turner – Freelance Technology Journalist