More and more FM services are being offered in the cloud. But is cloud right for your business? Cloud General Manager of FSI, Tony Cohen, talks us through the benefits and the risks.
What is cloud computing?
At its simplest, cloud is remotely hosted computer services. In essence, you use your device – PC, laptop, tablet or mobile phone – to access data and applications that are hosted elsewhere. The cloud has been around for a while – Yahoo and GMail have been offering cloud-based email since the early 1990s, allowing users to access their account from anywhere in the world via the internet. Initially, cloud was very much consumer facing. But increasingly, businesses are seeing that cloud can enable them to work more flexibly, efficiently and securely and that it can help them deliver savings, innovation and competitive advantage.
But the way a business wants to access its applications is generally different from private users. This has created three types of cloud – public, private and hybrid. Public cloud, as its name suggests, is hosted by an external provider and is publically accessible; this is used by consumer-providers such as Facebook. A private cloud is hosted in a secure data centre specifically for your organisation – it hosts all the applications that your company accesses and is only accessible by your team. In addition, the applications hosted within your private cloud may be built specifically for your organisation. A hybrid cloud has both public-facing services and private, back-end functions.
Three Cloud Services
There are also three types of services available through the cloud: software, infrastructure and platforms. Software can be bespoke or multi-tenanted environments, such as Exchange, where lots of users can access an application. Infrastructure refers to the hardware – effectively you can outsource all the computer systems that you currently have and manage to a data centre. Platforms are completely integrated services, predominantly developed for advanced IT users and developers.
The business benefits
The most obvious advantage of cloud is the flexibility – the ability to access applications and data anytime, anywhere. As the data and applications are sited remotely rather than in-house, staff no longer have to go to one site, to one PC or a networked PC to work. Remote storage also offers security – if a team member loses their laptop, their data is backed up elsewhere. If you take cloud to its limit, your entire desktop can be hosted remotely: in the case of the lost laptop, the only thing you have lost is the laptop; all the data and applications can be accessed from any other device.
The availability of cloud-based services, with instant messaging, voice communication and file sharing, can in turn improve communication and collaboration across an organisation and with external partners. Whereas previously it might have been difficult to find out exactly what colleagues were doing, when everyone can access data from anywhere, it is easier to keep track of exactly who is up to what and how projects are progressing. This openness even makes it easier to understand individuals’ skill sets and how they can be harnessed most effectively. Remote hosting also enables all information to be instantly synced, improving productivity.
Cloud-based services also offer economies for both consumers and providers. For the providers, being able to offer software and infrastructure to multiple clients generates economies of scale. This is making software – even enterprise solutions – affordable to smaller businesses that previously wouldn’t have been able to consider it. If you only access your software in your cloud, you also don’t have to update your computers every time there is an upgrade.
Moving to hosted infrastructure means you no longer have to consider which equipment to invest in or run teams of expensive IT people to manage it – your provider does all of this for you, bringing your overheads down. Hosted infrastructure can provide additional economies through the flexibility it offers. Rather than having to make major investment decisions to purchase equipment and licenses, you can opt to Pay As You Use – for example you may need greater use during a specific project or in response to seasonal demand. You can similarly add and remove users easily, enabling you to scale up and down flexibly. Investment decisions to scale up or down infrastructure that would previously have taken weeks to research and implement can now be done in a matter of hours.
The disadvantage of cloud is that you are putting a lot of eggs in one basket. This makes due diligence essential when choosing your service provider. Fortunately, regulation is catching up with technology and providers now have to spend a lot of money making sure their infrastructure and services are secure. Checking your provider’s accreditation will give you reassurance that they will provide a safe environment for your data and applications.
But while trusting your security to a third party may seem risky, the reality is that reliable providers deliver better security than in-house solutions. The buzz words are resilience and redundancy. A provider that offers high resilience will essentially have everything backed up to make sure you can always access your systems and data: at least two links from their telecom provider, at least two power sources and duplicates of data centre equipment. If anything falls over, the redundancy that is built in takes over to maintain business as normal. High redundancy effectively means high availability: if one piece of equipment is laid off, the provider guarantees having another to replace it so the service is always available.
The other issue that needs to be weighed when considering moving to cloud is the bandwidth availability of your internet provision and the requirements of your applications. Most businesses should be able to get reliable, fast business broadband access, so the question is not generally whether cloud is suitable for your organisation, but rather which of your applications are suitable for cloud.
Other technology trends within the FM industry are making cloud solutions even more attractive. The move for Bring Your Own Devices is encouraging providers to develop applications that can be accessed on smartphones. To maintain security, many applications allow access via smartphone but don’t download to the device; this also makes it easier for IT staff to manage BYOD applications.
The move towards BYOD is part of the trend that means staff are expected to be contactable no matter where they are. While the screen resolution of hand-held devices is improving all the time, health and safety regulations regarding screen working still apply. As cloud and associated technology change the way we work, it is vital for organisations to assess the impact on staff and make sure their working practices meet legal requirements.
With the arrival of Windows 8.1 in October and the demise of Windows XP in April 2014, the growth of Google and the unstoppable rise of add-ons, it is obvious to even casual observers that the technological revolution keeps gathering pace. But moving to cloud means your organisation can reduce its investment in in-house solutions and infrastructure and can therefore ride the turbulence of obsolescence more smoothly than by keeping everything in-house.
About FSI Cloud
FSI Cloud meets the growing demand for high availability hosted services, providing a full range of cloud computing and business productivity applications that enables small and medium sized businesses to be more agile and scalable to meet their client demands.
FSI Cloud is a premier provider of hosted solutions, and part of FSI Global Limited, a group of privately-owned companies providing market-leading workplace technology and services.
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