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How can you ensure that your business gets the most from the cloud?

A dozen or so years ago, if you asked most people about the cloud they’d have told you it was a white, fluffy thing that was an all-too-common feature of the British weather. Now, they’re just as likely to tell you it’s where their family photos are stored and where they stream their music from.

The rise of the cloud – we’re talking about the internet so no need to dash to fetch the washing in – has had significant implications for business too and is rapidly becoming the norm. So, what has the cloud done for us and how can you ensure that your business gets the most from its advantages?

Cloud advantages

What businesses should be using cloud computing? Businesses of all sizes from small businesses to the NHS can harness the power of the cloud. The cloud, whether public or private, has some compelling advantages for business users. Firstly, there’s the convenience of being able to access data and applications from anywhere. Combine this with fibre internet connections, reliable mobile data and technologies such as Ethernet first mile (EFM) and it’s possible to put remote offices, home workers and even field staff on a par with centralised office staff in terms of their ability to access information.

businessman-using-cloudThere are benefits in terms of safety too, knowing that your data is regularly backed up and has appropriate access controls such as two-factor authentication in place. Of course cost is a factor; using cloud storage is generally cheaper than in-house hardware, with the added advantage that you can quickly ramp up to cope with extra demand without the lead times associated with sourcing new disk storage.

The increased reliability of the cloud has seen a rise in as-a-service delivery models for software too. This again provides convenience, making the same applications available anywhere. And cost is also a factor here too; you’re paying for the number of people actually using the platform, so there will be no unused licensed software languishing in cupboards and no issues with infringements from re-used licence codes.

Availability is another major factor; cloud providers will generally have provision for keeping the service active regardless of local problems. Compare this to an in-house data centre serving multiple locations, where a single power outage or system failure could stop the whole business working. With systems in the cloud, a problem at one site won’t have an effect on the others.

There’s added flexibility in that you have minimal hardware investment so there’s nothing to stop you picking up your data and taking it to another provider in future if you so choose.

Cloud challenges

Of course, the cloud brings new challenges to businesses too. Not least are concerns over security. Security experts are keen to remind us that the cloud is in fact just, “someone else’s computer”. This means that businesses must take steps to ensure that their information is secure, both at rest and in transmission.

Little surprise then that recent research by the Ponemon Institute for cybersecurity company Thales shows that the cloud has made many more businesses turn to encryption in order to safeguard their data.

Where data is governed by strict compliance requirements, such as in the healthcare or financial services industries, the cloud throws up some additional challenges. It’s important to know where data is stored, so it’s essential to choose service providers with care, especially when looking at large companies that may have data centres in multiple locations and countries.

There’s also the issue of shadow usage. Publicly available, easy-to-use services such as OneDrive and Dropbox mean that users can easily copy and share data under the radar of the business unless strict controls are in place. Similarly, when services such as Google Docs are freely available it’s hard to prevent users adopting applications other than those approved by the company.

Ethernet First Mile

Of course, you can only use the cloud if you have access to it. While internet connectivity is almost universal, dependency on the cloud means fast, reliable connections are a must. Although most areas of the UK now have reliable broadband speeds, standard connections may not be enough for business use. Not too surprising then that companies have chosen to adopt Ethernet first mile, the costs for which are lower than installing a dedicated leased line or fibre circuit even though it can deliver almost equivalent performance.

uploading-files-to-cloudPart of the problem for many businesses using cloud systems is the need to upload substantial volumes of data. Everyday broadband isn’t especially suited for this as it uses an asynchronous circuit where upload speeds are much faster than those for downloads. While this is fine when you’re checking emails or streaming from Spotify, when you need to upload and store large files in the cloud it can be a problem.

Synchronous connections use the same speed in either direction, but they’re not available on all exchanges; they’re costly, and they have a long lead time for installation. Using Ethernet first mile gets around this by connecting to the exchange using paired copper telephone cables combined with signal processing technology to deliver a fast, reliable, resilient connection.

Compared to leased line prices, Ethernet first mile costs are far lower, and it’s available pretty much everywhere. It means a guaranteed connection speed and bandwidth that’s not limited by contention from other users, so it’s easy to see why this option is growing in popularity.

Cloud strategies

The choice of cloud is a little more complex than simply “in-house or cloud”. Not only are there many competing services available, there are decisions to take about public and private services and whether to adopt some form of hybrid strategy – mixing public and private or cloud and in-house.

For businesses handling sensitive information, private cloud can be an attractive option. Think of it as having a reserved carriage on a train; you get all the benefits of the journey but separate from the sandwich eating, iPod listening, loud phone call making, habits of the other passengers. It’s possible to do all of this via a virtual private cloud. This still uses a public cloud provider but has the business’ systems firewalled from everyone else’s and separately secured to keep them independent.

The public sector has shown a keenness to adopt cloud systems. The UK government adopted a ‘cloud first’ policy as long ago as 2013 and a similar policy adopted in the US in 2010 has seen as many as 1,000 government data centres shut down. The advantages the cloud in terms of potential cost savings are therefore pretty clear. Should you adopt a Cloud First Strategy?

While the private sector may not be able to show such major savings, the advantages of cloud adoption are still evident. As workforces become more flexible and more mobile it opens up a whole range of potential for new working practices.

Security, reliability and cost

In making a move to the cloud it’s important that you choose the right company with which to partner. You have the choice of major companies such as Amazon and Google, but there are also many smaller, more specialist providers.

Trust in any relationship with a cloud provider is paramount; you therefore need to take account of many of the things we’ve discussed above: security, availability, reliability, cost, etc. Before committing to any service you need to make sure that service level agreements are in place that guarantee you the levels of service you require.

This applies to your telecommunications provider as well as your cloud provider, if you’re dependent on the cloud then assured access and the reliability of technologies such as Ethernet first mile are key. Where business data is concerned, non-disclosure agreements need to be in place too.

In reviewing providers, look for independent audit reports, industry certifications including ISO9001 and so on that show adherence to quality standards. These only provide part of the picture however; you need to look at the ‘soft’ angle too. What’s the company like to deal with, how easy are they to contact, will you have a nominated account manager? Look for reviews or talk to existing customers to get a feel for the company you’re dealing with and find out what they’re like to work with.

In order to provide all businesses with equal opportunities to invest in fast, reliable and most importantly cost-effective connectivity, the government’s Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme offers eligible UK businesses the chance to claim vouchers of up to £2,500 to put towards the cost of an Ethernet connection.

Business benefits of the cloud

There’s no doubt that the cloud has already brought about major changes in the way we do business. It’s also certain that this isn’t just a short-term trend, the cloud is here to stay. If your business hasn’t adopted it yet then it’s almost certain you’ll have to in years to come, or risk being left behind by your competitors.

What’s also important is to recognise that the cloud and its adoption don’t just convey changes for the IT department. The cloud can – and arguably should – have an effect on the entire business, bringing opportunities for more flexible working and allowing a more agile approach to making changes and responding to the market and the competition. Adopting the cloud is not just about changing your systems, it’s about embracing the positive economic and business benefits that it can bring to your company.

The future is cloudy.