Cloud Services 101-4: For Small Businesses

Originally published for Averro.com blog.

Cloud computing is quickly altering the way small businesses work.  Hardware procurement, setup and software licensing in order to support  the applications for all users in the organization is a significant effort and constant concern for the management team in any small business. With the development of cloud based services, that concern has been reduced to a great extent. The greatest advantage that small businesses get by using cloud services is the savings in initial investment and maintenance costs, when compared to in-house maintained costs.

At this point in the article series, we should put forward that our bias is that the goal of any small/medium business is to be a SERVER FREE-ZONE.  In other words, have no on-premise servers for anything. 

Lets look at a few key areas in which cloud-based services  that can help the owner of almost any small business to cut down significantly on technology investments:

  • E-mail / Shared Calendar services — Consider this: If you are paying more than $40 dollars per user per year for 7Gb mailbox with  full-capability email and private/shared calendar services – You need to reconsider your choice!   Any small or medium sized company has to spend a sizeable amount for acquiring licenses of Microsoft Exchange Server, or similar e-mail software. Not any longer! 
    • Microsoft Online service allows dozens of employees check their official e-mails from a secure location, which is hosted online. Employees can even download e-mails straight from the Microsoft Online to their workstations, if they have client installed.   
    • Google Apps, or more specifically ‘Gmail for business’, also allows employees to check their e-mails securely from almost anywhere in the world.  Contrary to what some may think, we have found ‘Gmail for business’   an excellent back-end mail server  with full shared calendar functionality. 
  • File Share / Document repository –  This is area which has had incredible adoption within the small-medium business.  Think of being able to access your office files from anywhere without having a VPN or expensive gateways anytime/anywhere but still having strong security in place.   If you are like us, this was very high in our wishlist!   
    • Egnyte.com -  Incredible application, their biggest differenciator is that they map a standard drive letter  drive to their cloud storage, and you can use it as you would a local drive.     A shared and private areas are defined, and folder (and file) based permissions can be set with an easy to use web-interface.
    • Microsoft Live SkyDrive -   A web-storage space where you can place 25GB of files for free.  There is great interest in understanding the bundling of this service with the Microsoft Office Web Apps and the services that will be provided with Office 2010.
    • We will explore in more detail this area in a future article, but suffice it to say that there tons of other providers including: Microsoft Online SharePoint, Google Docs, Zoho.com.
  • Accounting software — Proper management of financial information is essential to ensure smooth functioning of any business organization. The information no longer need to be tied two one or two computers  within your organization… Many cloud-based services have emerged as a boon to owners of small businesses. 
    • QuickBooks Online, probably one of the most well known business accounting software has experienced widespread popularity, mainly because of its plethora of functionalities that could put a lot of commercially developed accounting software utilities to shame. 
    • FinancialForce.com is  another cloud based accounting software that is gaining popularity at a rapid rate, but it will be a long time before QuickBooks feels any heat from that. They provide  integration with SalesForce.com, has  excellent  user interface and lots of useful feature, which may increase its popularity substantially as time progresses.
    • Many others traditional provides including  Peachtree, Quicken, NetSuite, to mention a few have online versions and see exponential growth in their businesses in this area.  
  • Customer Relationship Management (CRM)   — It is all about relationships! Any small or medium sized company needs to keep track of customer information and history in order to maintain a healthy relationship and  help their bottom line.  In fact, in a January 2010 study by industry analyst firm Gartner, report finds that the CRM solutions market had the second largest amount of Software as a Service (SaaS) revenue across market segments.  
    • Salesforce.com – the absolute leader in this space.     
    • Many others are in these space ranging from free to inexpensive to expensive: Microsoft Dynamics CRM, SageCRM.com, LandSlide.com, SugarCRM.com.
  • Phone Services – Virtual PBX   — if you have a legacy expensive phone PBX system you will love the saving and features of what you can do with VoIP (Voice over IP) and Virtual PBX services.   Automated Call routing and Distribution  (ACD);  Voice Mail, Follow-me routing, Multi-Ring; round-robin call;  Voicemail to Text,  … So many features for so very little, and no equipment to install or setup –   
    • Some of the major players in this space include:   VirtualPBX.com, RingCentral.com, OnSip.com, OneBox.com –  It is expected that Google will fully enter this market with his already-in Beta product:   Google Voice (which I love!)

These cloud based services help any small business to run more efficiently for less investment than ever before. There is really no reason anymore to have expensive boxes sitting around the office partially user, and/or collecting dust.      

We expect to touch-up individual areas in future articles.   As always, we would love to hear from you as well..

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