As some of you know I write for (gasp – does it still exist) print media as well as online. My post last month for Unlimited magazine looked at cloud computing from an newbies point of view. I think it gave a simple and understandable explanation to what going cloudy can do for a SME.

Unlimited is a great mag and well worth a subscription…..

Full text of article below the fold.

Small business owners are constantly being approached by spotty-faced youngsters espousing the benefits of the latest technological developments and spouting terms like “killer-app”, “game-changing” and “paradigm shift”. Unfortunately there is often a disconnect between a spotty-faced youngster’s idea of what is cool and a small business owner’s idea of what actually constitutes an advance. I’m no longer a youngster, but I do tend to wax lyrical about what technology can do for small business. After all, I’m a small business owner myself.

Most people agree that the fundamental change over the past few years has been the shift towards the popular view that internet connectivity is indispensable and integral to business. This change has seen the development of what has been termed “cloud computing”. Cloud computing may sound like some strange meteorological term, but actually refers to data storage in a remote data centre, rather than on a user’s own computer. This large, distributed and mobile computing shape is often pictorially represented by a bank of clouds.

The easiest way to explain the benefits of this “new paradigm” is to look at the realities for a small business. Take Jim, a fictitious plumber. It’s helpful to compare the way he worked even five years ago with what is possible for him today. Five years ago Jim only used his computer for quoting and bookkeeping. Perhaps he’d splashed out and paid for a listing on an online trade directory, but that was pretty much it. Each time his suppliers changed pricing on him, he had to manually input data into his clunky old accounting package. At the end of the year when Jim’s accountant needed to do his returns, Jim’s friendly IT man had to come in and perform some tech wizardry. And then, when the inevitable happened and his hard drive got fried in a lightning strike, all his data, both current and historical, was lost.

So how does cloud computing improve Jim’s business practices and protect against a wiped hard drive? After the lightning strike, Jim decided that he had to seize the bull by the horns and find out how technology could help him. He started off with the easy things – his anguish over the erased information encouraged him to explore applications that didn’t rely on data storage on his own computer – enter Software as a Service (SaaS).

One of the core attributes of SaaS is that the user data sits in the clouds and is accessible anytime and anywhere via a web browser. Jim decided to use Xero, the online accounting system created by Kiwi Rod Drury (who is neither a youngster, nor spotty-faced, but pretty evangelical all the same). Xero, one of a plethora of SaaS offerings, allows Jim to see his data from his own computer, on his fancy mobile phone, from an Internet café – wherever. His accountant also has access to the data in real time, enabling him to advise and update Jim as required.

With this new focus on business processes, things started getting busy for Jim and project management started becoming an issue. Step in ProWorkFlow, another SaaS offering, this time providing project management and time tracking. Jim can now plan projects, collaborate on timing with other tradespeople, and closely follow how job costs are adding up, compared to estimates.

More? From time to time Jim needs to prepare proposals for clients and spreadsheets for the bank – enter Zoho, yet another SaaS application. Zoho can replace Microsoft Office and all its components, and yet again offers Jim the ability to access his documents wherever and whenever he wants.

And it’s only just begun. Already many of these applications are able to “talk” to each other. So, for example, timeline updates in a project management application could be set to automatically initiate the creation of a progress invoice by an accounting application. Data from employees entering details in the project management application could automatically be provided to a payroll package, which could in turn set up bank payment for wages. It’s all part of a connected and connecting economy.

So… spotty-faced geekery or vision of the future? No one can deny that any solution which increases efficiency, saves time and protects against losses is beneficial – cloud computing and its offshoots certainly do this and more.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

3 Comments
  • Ben –

    Nice article. You’re particularly right in the second-to-last paragraph about making the applications more connected to each other. That’s one of the most popular requests we get over at Zoho and are surely working to make some of those scenarios you describe available soon.

    Thanks for keeping us in mind!

    Rodrigo

  • Not realy a comment about clouds but I noticed that you wrote about small business accounting SAAS a while ago & thought you would like to see our free offering- http://www.numia.biz.

  • By Dan D. Gutierrez
    CEO of HostedDatabase.com

    Great article! For the benefit of the technical tyros out there, the term “cloud” arose from the technical diagram icon used to denote the Internet, it was a cartoon-ish cloud. People using these diagrams started referring to “the cloud” in meetings and thus the term stuck.

    My firm launched the web’s first Database-as-a-Service in 1999, a time when placing software in the cloud, let alone corporate data assets, was virtually unheard of. Fast forward nearly 10 years and the industry we help pioneer is finally gaining the respect it deserves.

    Thanks for helping bring the cloud to the masses!

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