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Is your business on the Cloud? Do you know what the cloud is, or what it can do for your business? Given all the attention on the Cloud, have you found yourself wondering how it could potentially benefit your business?

Until recently, businesses have had to own and maintain complex technology needed to communicate and operate efficiently. These voice and data systems are vital to the success of any business, and without reliable, well-managed technology most businesses simply can’t compete.

Today’s available cloud computing options present an opportunity to take the complexity, unreliability, lack of security, high-costs of ownership, and sheer frustration out of the equation for just about any business, regardless of size. Here are a few tips for how to leverage the cloud from a practical, down-to-earth perspective.

Move your Business Phone System to the Cloud

It has never been easier to save money and lower your headaches than now by moving to a cloud-based phone system. This is not to be confused with Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone service. This is a different approach, which completely eliminates your on-premise phone system and phone service.

A cloud-based phone system replaces the ‘master switch’ in the back room that connects all of your phones together and handles all your calls. Instead of this being a hardware box hanging on a wall somewhere (ready to fail anytime) a cloud-based phone system is a service delivered from a datacenter by a cloud service provider. The hardware, software, power, connectivity, phone lines, etc. are all part of the package.

You still have what looks like a regular business phone on your desk, but it’s connected to your network instead of phone lines. It uses the internet to communicate with the cloud phone system. A cloud phone system offers great features like call routing, auto-attendants, web-browser-based-consoles, and automatic disaster-recovery routing of your calls to your cell phones should the power or internet go out at your office. When your office does suffer a power or internet outage, the cloud based phone system is still up, it still answers your calls and routes them appropriately to cell phones or voicemail.

When you say the words “internet phone service” or ‘voice over IP” people sometimes cringe. Everyone has either had a bad experience first-hand or heard about one. We won’t name names, but we all know the horror stories. Most of these bad experiences come from trying to run VoIP on poorly configured home or small-business networks. Larger businesses have used this technology successfully for years, while small businesses and residential deployments have struggled. Like any new technology it has evolved and improved, and cloud based phone systems can now be adopted very easily and successfully.

The key to success is to find a reputable IT-consultant with experience installing hosted phone systems, and following these three simple steps:

  1. Make sure you have a reliable, high-speed internet connection – preferably cable or fiber-optic internet service.
  2. Make sure your IT-consultant knows how to prioritize voice traffic coming in and out of your corporate network. The technical term for this is Quality of Service or QoS.
  3. Check References – Ask your IT-consultant and/or cloud based phone system vendor for at least three names of satisfied clients. Call and ask their other clients about the service before you decide to jump in head first.

When a cloud based phone system is implemented correctly it works great, and your business can reap the benefits of a low-cost, robust platform, with very high-quality phone calls.

Move Business Email to the Cloud

Most businesses either already have hosted email accounts with their internet service provider or web host, while some companies operate their own email service. The most common corporate email system is Microsoft Exchange Server. As anyone who uses it already knows, the features and productivity gains of Exchange Server are excellent but there is high cost and complexity involved with operating your own email server.

Recently, as the Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) phenomenon continues to grow, corporate users are bringing in their smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc. and they all want to use them with the corporate network. The first thing everyone wants to do is synchronize their email, contacts, calendar, etc.

This poses a challenge for traditional email systems. Most email accounts are already overloaded and overburdened by the fact that most people use email as their primary means of sharing files. This means larger and larger files are stacking up in the message queues and being saved and stored in the users’ email mailboxes. All of this demand can strain the systems as more and more resources are needed and more manpower is required to manage it all. The problem can cascade to where resources and budgets are stretched thin, or worse, the system crashes.

By offloading this mission-critical service to the Cloud, companies can free themselves of owning, operating, and maintaining this complex service. Further, they can benefit from 99.9% uptime commitments, built-in anti-virus and anti-spam filters, and large mailbox sizes with unlimited archive storage for all of your old emails. Integration with Microsoft Outlook is fully supported, and users can synchronize as many devices as you wish to allow.

For more and more businesses, email has become the primary means of communication with clients, vendors and staff. If this is true for your business, then the cloud represents the chance to solidify your email service in a secure, reliable datacenter rather than on a susceptible server in your storage closet.

Migrate Corporate Servers, Data, and Software to the Cloud

Network Servers in businesses perform important functions like storing, sharing, and controlling access to information saved on the corporate network. More and more departments, roles, and functions in companies rely on information technology and business software running on servers. Because recent advancements in cloud infrastructure-as-a-service, these server functions can be moved entirely to the cloud, offering businesses greater reliability, security, scalability, and agility than is possible with traditional hardware-based network servers.

There really is no comparing the reliability of cloud-based servers to hardware-based systems; it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. Cloud-based servers are fundamentally designed to offer greater than 99.99% reliability, 24/7. All systems are redundant and scalable: data storage (disk drives), processing (CPU), memory (RAM), connectivity (network), and power. It is very difficult, and very expensive, to achieve these levels of system availability with on-premise equipment.

While most businesses have reasonable network security for their servers and sensitive data, including firewalls, anti-virus/anti-spyware software, password policies, etc. it is common to find there is limited or no physical security for this equipment. The cloud offers a high-level of both network and physical security. Depending on the needs of the business, systems can be designed so that even the operators of the cloud infrastructure-as-a-service don’t have access to any of the servers or data stored on your virtual private cloud within the datacenter.

A good example of scalability is when the hard drive on the server fills up with data. This is happening all too frequently as files sizes increase and databases are storing more information with accompanying schematics, images, etc. With a physical server, this means buying more hard drives, configuring complicated, redundant server storage systems, probably paying IT-consultants lots of money to move all that data, etc. With the cloud, instant scalability and increased storage is available on-demand, no downtime, pay-as-you-go, only pay what you need. It might be better to add an entirely separate server to host a new database application your company needs. Starting up this entirely new virtual server and configuring it to work with your cloud-based infrastructure takes minutes, not days. This technology makes backup management simple and reliable.

Server operating system upgrades, business software upgrades, migrations, etc. are major IT projects with traditional servers. On the cloud we have the agility to try before we buy, and rollback to pre-upgrade quickly if we need to. For instance, if a software upgrade is applied on a cloud server, and it doesn’t work well, it’s a quick and painless process (about 15 minutes) to go back to the pre-update state of that server. With a real machine, we’re dealing with unreliable backup software, and keeping our fingers crossed for eight hours while restoring from backup.

Say goodbye to the PC’s

It’s the end of an era. Say goodbye to the old, dusty, computer tower with the loud power-supply fan that acts up when you first turn it on. No more rebooting three times just to get it to turn on, no more updates, no more viruses, no more hard drive failures. That’s right; businesses can finally get rid of all of the costs and headaches of the personal computer.

Most businesses rely on just a handful of software packages when you really break it down. There really is no need for all the complexity and horsepower of a PC under every single desk in most organizations. Most people need their email (Microsoft Outlook), a business productivity suite (Microsoft Office), an accounting system (such as Intuit QuickBooks or Sage 50), and an industry-specific business management system (Materials Resource Planning, Enterprise Resource Planning, Service Management, etc.) All of these systems can be moved to cloud-based servers, and the user’s desktops can be delivered from the cloud to the user via Remote Desktop Services, a technology that has been around for decades. This technology is server-based, and it allows for the delivery of a corporate Remote Desktop to any internet connected computer (PC or Mac), tablet, smartphone, or thin-client computer.

A thin-client (some common manufacturers are Dell Wyse and HP) is not really a computer at all – it’s a small appliance. There is no hard drive or moving parts, it’s about 1/8 the size of a traditional mini-tower and consumes far less power. It has standard connections for a monitor (or multiple monitors), ports for a keyboard and mouse, and wired/wireless network connectivity. A thin-client has a local web-browser so you can get online easily and will connect to the cloud server to deliver a secure Remote Desktop. The user gets a traditional Windows desktop experience, while all of the data and computing is happening on the cloud. There is never any data or software stored on the thin-client appliance.

There is very little user training required with Remote Desktop Services and thin-client computers because it looks just like what people already know how to use; Start Menu, Programs, mapped network drives, network printers, everything. Best of all, you can use the full-versions of your software that is already familiar to you and your staff. It looks and feels just like your traditional desktop – it just runs better. Everyone has access to the same versions of your software because it’s installed and upgraded on the cloud, and everyone is logged in to the same environment.

In Summary

Migrating to the Cloud doesn’t create the usual amount of overwhelming organizational anxiety and stress associated with technology change as other past IT-related projects. Typically, most businesses are going from on-premise servers and computers. The cloud environment is built ahead of time and people can test, train, and gain familiarity before going live.

Once an organization is on the cloud business leaders have greater control over their technology. There is no mystery, no one person holding all the keys and pulling all the strings. Everything is in one safe, secure place.

Of course this is a very broad discussion. With proper planning a business can move most of its mission-critical functions to the cloud and enjoy a robust, secure, modern system that will enable users to work when and where they want to.