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There's a fair weight on the shoulders of the UK's small business community. Frequently referred to as the 'backbone' of the economy, they now have the added onus of leading the recovery from recession. No pressure then.
But if there's a silver lining, it may come in the form of cloud computing. It's been heralded as a true opportunity for smaller organisations to bounce back.
In a report from last year, K2 advisory predicted cloud computing would even give small companies an advantage over [larger] enterprises.
Getting behind the cloud computing hype
And this year's Microsoft Cloud Adoption Study goes further, envisioning a more transformational future for cloud users. "I believe there is huge potential for cloud technology to accelerate both the business opportunities for the ICT industry as well as for SMEs in Europe," says Klaus Holse Andersen, area vice-president of Microsoft Western Europe.
There's still lots of hype around the cloud that makes it seem like a daunting prospect for small business bosses. However, reduced to its most simple form, it's just the way companies buy IT.
It can give you IT on demand, offering a pay-as-you-go solution that could have a profound impact on our work culture, not to mention small business growth. Cloud computing has generally lowered the barriers to entry for new businesses, so there's little wonder it's being heralded as the engine that will drive the recovery.
"One of the wonders of cloud computing is that, unusually, small businesses are among its early adopters," says Andy Burton, the chairman of the Cloud Industry Forum, an industry body promoting best practice.
So far, companies tend to be moving backup, storage and back-office functions into the cloud. A fortunate by-product of this is that many businesses have improved their haphazard disaster recovery plans too.
But the cloud is also proving popular for email, especially if the company has a mobile workforce. In fact, hosted business email - along with cloud-based video-conferencing and VOIP - can give smaller businesses access to the kind of integrated communications that have been the preserve of larger companies until now.
Cloud computing opportunities
And it's the collaboration opportunities that Burton believes hold the greatest value for small firms. While the cost benefits are important, an upcoming Cloud Industry Forum survey found financial savings tend to come second to collaboration benefits.
Small businesses are likely to push cloud computing into the mass-market, too. According to the Microsoft report, 39 per cent of over 3,200 small businesses surveyed expect to pay for one or more cloud service this year. The number of services small companies pay for will nearly double, with uptake accelerating as owner-managers upgrade their existing technology.
Barriers to cloud computing
And what about pitfalls? The 'click-through culture' and low cost of cloud computing can make you lazy about reading contracts. You can sign up for services in just a couple of minutes (if you have your credit card handy), but Burton urges buyers to consider thier requirements before buying.
There are also cultural and perceptual changes to overcome – according to Microsoft's research, most people are more comfortable with cloud services that are 'local'. "People are concerned particularly about where data resides. So it's important to understand your supplier's approach to data storage," says Burton.
Connectivity can pose a problem too. After all, you need an internet connection to use cloud computing, so it's important to understand if your connection is fast and reliable enough. Also, does your cloud computing provider offer a solid service level agreement? How will it behave regarding data transfer and security if you want to switch vendors?
The Cloud Industry Forum has codes of practice for providers, while cloud computing has even attracted the beady eye of the EU commissioner Neelie Kroes – a sure endorsement that it has arrived.
In all, the use of cloud computing is only likely to grow. Burton even sees a time when the workplace as a single entity dissolves. "The components are all there for something 'transformational', now it just has to come together."