Everyone’s talking about cloud computing, but how can it help with business on the road, and what are the pros and cons? Alex Blyth reports
CLOUD COMPUTING IS a phrase business travel buyers have been hearing more and more frequently in the past couple of years. Some herald it as a revolution in how we do business, while others dismiss it as merely the buzz-phrase of the moment.
The reality is in fact somewhere in between. Properly understood and carefully implemented, cloud computing has the potential to help your executives remain productive while on the road, while also cutting costs and minimising risks in your business. It is without doubt an area that all travel buyers should understand.
It sounds more exotic than it really is. As Ramona Liberoff, executive vice president of marketing, strategy and planning at cloud telecommunications company Movirtu, says: “Cloud computing is an old idea in new clothes. It is simply accessing data and applications through the internet.”
A good parallel is electricity. In the early days of electricity, companies generated it themselves. Then electricity providers set up, offering to supply them as much as they needed, meaning they could stop spending money on generators and get back to running their own businesses. In the same way, cloud computing allows us to do away with servers and software packages, and even telephone exchanges, and focus on doing what we do best.
Russell Henderson, technical director at virtual solutions provider SITS Group, gives some examples: “A good example of a cloud is Amazon’s EC2 services. It holds all your data and you access it over the internet rather than through your own servers. Another is SalesForce. Instead of spending thousands of pounds on customer relationship management software, you access it online and pay a monthly fee.”
An immediately obvious benefit is that you can avoid large capital expenditure on items like servers and software. You can also radically reduce your spend on maintaining IT hardware and upgrading software, and on all the IT staff who run it. You don’t employ electrical engineers, so why employ software developers?
There are many other, less obvious benefits, not least in the area of security. Mark Bilger, chief technical officer at Dell Services, explains: “Every day business travellers lose hundreds of laptops and storage devices. They lose the documents stored on those devices, and possibly expose their businesses to data loss risks. With the cloud, those documents are held online so remain safe, and the traveller needs only find a new computer, tablet or smartphone to access them and carry on working.”
Then there is the potential for collaboration. ThinkSmart Technologies is a software company that always has many executives on the road. Co-founder Brendan O’Brien says: “We recently signed up to use Google’s cloud, and for just $50 per year we can all now share documents. This means that if I’m in San Francisco and my chief technology officer is in Rome, we can both be working simultaneously on the same document. It speeds up our work immensely.”
Finally, the cloud offers anytime, anywhere access, cutting the amount of wasted downtime while travelling. “The cloud changes how executives access vital information,” says Bilger. “They can access it with speed and ease, anywhere in the world from many devices. This means that wherever executives travel, as long as they have an internet connection, they can use the cloud to create a virtual office.”
It is important to get cloud computing right. Enthused by these potential benefits, far too many companies are rushing headlong into it. At best they will fail to realise those benefits; at worst they will expose their businesses to significant risk.
One issue is the cost of connection charges. We have all heard the horror stories of business travellers downloading a presentation whilst on a far-flung trip and returning home to a four-figure bill. Indeed, Tom Mendoza, managing director of smartphone and pocket wifi rental service Tep, says: “Business travellers accessing the cloud through their smartphones while abroad will use between 40 and 60MB a day, costing between £80 and £120 a day or between £800 to £1,200 for a 10-day business trip.”
His own company offers a pocket wifi device that, for less than £5 a day, gives access to 3G networks across 16 European countries.
Others point out that there are more affordable ways to access the internet overseas. “The cloud does depend on affordable and reliable internet access,” says Neil Delaney, head of SMB sales for Google Enterprises EMEA. “But, to be frank, so does business generally these days.
The days when you could switch on your auto-responder and say you’ll get back to emails next week are over. People expect you to be in contact wherever you are in the world.”
While cloud computing reduces the dangers involved in losing physical assets like laptops, it increases the need to secure your virtual assets.
First, your executives need to make sure that when they are overseas and access the internet through an unsecured network that they do not allow unauthorised people into your network. You can ensure this by setting up secure log-in processes and devising a data security system, and training your executives to use them.
Second, you need to ensure that your cloud provider will keep your data safe. “By handing data over to the cloud you’re waving goodbye to your role as its guardian and you will have to instead trust another’s adoption of it,” says Kevin Green, solutions manager at Trustmarque Solutions.
He goes on to point out that your supplier of cloud services almost certainly has more stringent security policies and more powerful security equipment than your own organisation. However, you need to ensure that is the case.
Check those policies and the equipment. Look for independent audits. Go through your service-level agreements with a fine-tooth comb, making sure you spot any unsuitable disclaimers of loss and liability.
Above all else, it is vital to find the right provider of cloud services for your organisation. Edinburgh-based Head Resourcing is a recruitment consultancy which specialises in placing European medical personnel in organisations in Australia, New Zealand and, increasingly, the Middle East. Its 50 consultants travel a great deal and need to be continually in contact with clients and candidates.
This had always presented issues to managing director Gordon Adam, but cloud computing has proved the answer to these problems. “It allows us to extend our network seamlessly,” he says. “My consultants don’t care about the technology; they just want to be able to access the system wherever they are in the world and the cloud allows us to do that. We get updates automatically and I didn’t have to buy new servers.”
He approached the implementation very carefully, phasing it in over six months, and researching the market thoroughly before settling on Lumison, a local provider. He says: “It’s important to me that I can go and touch the servers if I want to. Above all else it’s a company I feel I can trust.”
TIME TO ACT
There is much to get right with cloud computing, but the potential for cost saving and increased productivity mean that more and more companies are becoming interested. David Blackman, general manager of cloud computing firm Acronis, says: “In our recent survey of 3,000 businesses globally, 74 per cent said they expect to have some form of cloud-based IT infrastructure in place by the end of 2011.”
Indeed in a decade it may be that the cloud becomes the norm, and that companies with their own servers, software packages and telephone exchanges are viewed as being as odd as companies that have their own electricity generators. As O’Brien at ThinkSmart Technologies concludes: “We don’t even think of it as the cloud; we just think of it as business.”