What Is the 'Cloud' and how can we use It?

Nothing needs to live on your local computer or server anymore - as long as you have an internet connection you can get to your data and software anywhere in the world, from any device at all. This is known as Cloud computing.

For individuals, this is obviously a huge advantage. Rather than paying for software or data storage, many people can get what they need for free. Cloud computing is also useful for organisations and businesses.

Cloud applications don't just cover the more obvious types of software: email, document management, file sharing, video conferencing and so on. There are now Cloud applications for recruitment, payroll and accounting, and for managing clients, services, etc.

Using the Cloud can also help remove some of the risks of keeping your data onsite. Backing up becomes less onerous and you don’t have to worry that if your server fails or your building is damaged by fire or flood, that you’ll also lose all your data. However, there are risks, and taking risks with your organisations data and services needs more serious consideration than risking your personal data. 

Do you need the Cloud?

You’re probably already using some Cloud computing apps, most people now have an online email account - probably with Gmail, Microsoft or Yahoo – where email messages are stored on the internet and can be retrieved using any internet-connected computer, tablet or phone. You might also use some kind of file-sharing service, such as Dropbox, to transfer large documents, pictures or other media to colleagues, or an application like Office Online for collaborative writing.

There are a few important issues to consider in deciding whether to extend your use of Cloud applications to cover more of your organisations requirements.

1. How good is your internet connection?

If you’re going to make a serious move towards the Cloud, you will need a connection which is reasonably fast and reliable, and where you can use large amounts of data without blowing your budget. A flaky internet connection might be OK if you’re only using the Cloud for email, but if you want it for video conferencing, phone calls, or for transferring large amounts of data you need a reliable connection.

If your internet connection is slow or drops out, can you switch to a better one? Is there a suitable plan which will meet your data needs without costing too much? If you can’t resolve your internet issues, it’s best to stick to data and software hosted locally on your computer or server. Otherwise, moving to the Cloud will put your organisation’s service delivery at risk.

2. How sensitive is the data you want to store in the Cloud?

Think about the kind of data you’re hoping to store in or transfer via the Cloud. Is it confidential? Are there legal restrictions or privacy requirements which affect where you can keep it? Before you sign up for any applications you should find out who will own your data, where it will be stored, who will have access to it and whether the security provisions meet your legal requirements. For non-confidential material, you will still want to know what happens to your data if the company storing it goes broke or has a catastrophic data loss, and what the procedure is for getting your data back if you change your mind about using the service or can no longer afford it. 

3. What are the overall costs?

On the face of it, switching from local software and servers to the Cloud seems like a great way to save money. But when you’re doing the sums, remember to include the cost of:

  • training staff to use the new system
  • time lost as you adapt your processes to the new system
  • increased data from your internet service provider.

On the savings side, you should take account of:

  • cheap or free software
  • cheap or free hosting of data (no need to have your own server)
  • reduced need for expensive IT expertise, as your software and data storage will be managed outside your organisation
  • potential for cheaper hardware: if you’re running everything online you can switch your staff computers to less-powerful devices with smaller memory requirements.

Going mobile

Almost any Cloud application will also be available for mobile devices – smart phones and tablets in particular. If you have staff in the field, staff will be able to access information from anywhere and record information while it’s fresh, avoiding double-handling and the introduction of errors. They will be able to provide full client support wherever it’s needed.

Some software however may not work that well on some mobile devices. Staff may find it hard to see on a smaller screen, or have trouble using menus. Make sure the software you use is fit for purpose before committing to it.

The main risk with going mobile is that every new device connected to your network is another way for unauthorised people to get access to your organisation and client data. If staff are going to use mobile devices and applications for work, you need to ensure they know how to keep them secure – our guide to Keeping your phone and laptop safe will help.

Switching to the Cloud

Before you choose an application and change the way your organisation works, here are a few things to consider:

  • Requirements first, solutions second. Sometimes you see publicity about a new app and it looks irresistible. But finding an exciting app then trying to make your work change to fit it is doing things backwards. First, figure out what your organisation needs to do its work, and any additional features that would help it do that work better. Once you have that list of requirements, look for an app that fits (or mostly fits).
  • Do you really know what your current software is used for and how staff work? Before you choose a new app, talk to the staff who will use it. Make sure it does the job it needs to do, and that staff have the skills to make the change. If they don’t, think about how much effort or cost it will take to train them. You don’t want to accidentally make it impossible for someone to do their job!
  • How will you migrate your data to the new service? If you have records you’ll still need to access in the new system, check whether it’s possible to migrate those and how difficult it will be to do so.
  • Will the new service integrate with your other services as needed? Often a piece of software has to work with other software in order for your organisation to run smoothly. Integration isn’t as simple as pulling one app out and slotting another one in, and often integration is the hardest and most expensive part of installing new software. Check how disruptive the new software will be to existing systems.
  • Are your computers properly specified for the applications you want to use? Check your local infrastructure – including printers, scanners and the network – is suitable for the applications.