Friday, April 8, 2011

Head in the Cloud, Feet on the Ground

In the last few years, more and more software is available on the Internet, rather than you having to install it on your computer or phone. This is what's called "Cloud Computing" - the act or service of providing software, IT resources and data via the Internet.

The biggest benefit of Cloud Computing is instant access. Because all our stuff is on-line, we can access it from anywhere in the world, and from any computing device - a PC, Mac, smart phone, iPad, Internet cafe, whatever. What's more, other people - for example, your staff, clients, suppliers and business partners - can also access this information.

The more you put in the Cloud, the more portable your business becomes.

Cloud Computing saves time and money because you don't have to buy, install, license and maintain software. You simply pays a much lower monthly fee (and sometimes no fee at all).

Are you taking full advantage of the Cloud?

Look at the software you use on a day-to-day basis, and consider whether there's a Cloud-based alternative - for example:
  • Gmail (instead of Outlook) for your e-mail
  • Google Docs (instead of Microsoft Word, Excel; or Apple's Pages and Numbers) for word processing and spreadsheet
  • Google Docs again (instead of PowerPoint or Keynote) for presentations
  • Saasu (instead of MYOB) for accounting and bookkeeping
  • Even Facebook and LinkedIn instead of your address book!
You don't have to use Cloud Computing to its fullest in order to be effective. For example, Google Docs provides an on-line word processor for editing documents, which you can use instead of Microsoft Word – and hence, you don't need a computer with Microsoft Word installed on it. However, you might be happy to use Microsoft Word on your computer to edit the document, and then upload it to The Cloud later. This sacrifices some of the flexibility (you can't edit documents from an Internet cafe in Siena when you're visiting there for the Palio), but you might be willing to accept that limitation (you probably didn't want to be editing that document on holiday anyway).

It's not all Cloud Nine, though ...

Cloud Computing's biggest benefit – instant access – is also its biggest drawback. As much as we'd like to think we have instant and universal access to the Internet, this isn't the case in practice. For example, most airlines don't yet allow Internet access for passengers, which means – ironically – that when you're literally in the clouds, you can't access "The Cloud".

However, this is becoming less of a problem now, partly because we do have better access to the Internet, and partly because software developers are finding clever ways to manage the connection problem.

For example, I use the fabulous Dropbox.com service to store files in the Cloud. Dropbox files look just like normal files on my PC, but are actually uploaded and downloaded to the Internet automatically. I can work on them even when not connected to the Internet, and Dropbox will seamlessly synchronise the files the next time it detects an Internet connection.

There are some other issues to consider - such as service reliability, security, privacy and ownership - and you do need to ask your tech support team about them.

But don't let that hold you back from exploring the opportunities the Cloud offers. Despite the risks and drawbacks, Cloud Computing offers an unprecedented opportunity for us to be more flexible, portable and collaborative in our businesses.

I recommend you use it, but use it wisely.

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