Making those first steps to cloud - advice for the SMB

In his first column, Dr Peter Chadha, managing director, DrPete offers practical advice on first steps towards cloud

The current race to ‘the cloud’ has entrants of varying abilities and speeds. Generally, cloud is being rapidly embraced by small businesses and start-ups as a low-cost IT option for network storage, remote working and collaboration.  Larger organisations are still taking a more cautious approach.

The reason is that it's very easy to get started with cloud, there are plenty of easy options. That's why most businesses are beginning with the easy-wins: e-mail, backup and file storage.  The more ambitious are using solutions such as Google Drive and Microsoft 360 to create entire collaborative networks and even ‘virtual’ businesses without office headquarters.

In fact, cloud strategy is simply an integrated element of business IT strategy, marrying where business is going with where IT tech is going.  However, it often requires some external expertise to help find the perfect match and avoid the partner from hell.

Head in the clouds
For email, the major cloud providers are providing free, or low-cost, cloud mail: Google is the most obvious, but Microsoft and Rackspace are amongst other providers.

File storage and sharing allow collaborative and remote working, usually combined with automatic backup supplied with these systems.  Arguably, Dropbox is the best known; Google Drive is also gaining a strong fanbase, while Egnyte and Box.Net, amongst others, have established themselves as business-specific providers.

Some businesses are even beginning to create their own cloud systems using Network Attached Storage (NAS) drives.

These are significantly cheaper than servers and are similar to a remote hard-drive attached to a PC, except they are connected to the company’s modem so that data stored on the drive can be accessed via the internet.

A note of caution however: whilst the hardware is generally reliable, the software can require time and expertise to set-up correctly. For instance, the underlying operating system, disk configuration (RAID) and set up may not be familiar to some IT managers – these are typically not Windows. Therefore, make sure the device has a secure web interface, change the default passwords and fully document the configuration.  

Memory lapse
The three most frequent mistakes made by businesses in planning a cloud migration are:

    • Forgetting data locations – those little applications or hidden data can cause the biggest problems. The third party e-mail system that updates stock inventories, or the automated spreadsheet that’s critical for the sales team have to be identified and audited before moving to the cloud.  To make this easier, start a register of systems and discuss amongst peers and other departments.  Ideally,  if you have a user group - get them to help. Don't wait for a critical system to be missed before getting this on the agenda.  Speak to accounts and get a list of system suppliers and start cross checking - this is good practice anyway.
    • Timing - understanding the business’ life-cycle is crucial.  Pre-Christmas for a retailer, or the pre-holiday period for a travel agency are not ideal times to consider moving into the cloud.
  • Not having a strategy – because cloud solutions are so quick and easy to set up, companies often rush in.  It is vital to decide whether to go for a total change to cloud, run a parallel system or consider a hybrid, such as backing up data both and locally and to the cloud until everything is tested and secure.

Health check
Any business heading for the cloud should consider the following:

1.   Have complete control of your business’ web domain name and be able to transfer it whenever and wherever you want

2.   Audit the devices that staff will use to access the cloud and ensure they will integrate with the cloud systems – eg Blackberry or tablets.

3.   Audit the data for migration and conduct a ‘spring clean’ before you start.

4.   Shop around – there are plenty of cloud providers with products for a range of needs. Expert web forum reviews are a good starting point.

5.   Be clear on your company’s comfort zone when it comes to risk. This will determine how much data and general activity you will want to place in the cloud.