For the small and mid-sized business, the "cloud" is already a familiar friend. Small businesses have increasingly found ways to reduce capital expenditures and operating costs through cloud computing, in which computing is provided by shared resources and software on the Internet on an on-demand model. As a result, they continue to move many business functions from on-site servers to the Web. However, few businesses truly have a cloud "migration" strategy and even fewer have successfully leveraged the cloud in vendor relations.
Maybe you've ditched the Microsoft Exchange server in favor of Google Apps. That was easy. It's just like your Gmail account, but for work. Or perhaps all of your files are securely backed up -- not on a bulky external hard drive, but on Box.net. And they're accessible from any Internet browser on any computer.
Whether you realize it or not, your business has already begun an important migration. But few small businesses have thoughtfully managed this transition and even fewer are fully taking advantage of business in the cloud. Using the cloud as a cost reduction tool is increasingly common -- reducing paperwork, lowering transaction costs, and investing in less hardware (and with fewer resources to manage it) can yield immediate impact in accelerating your growth. Less understood, however, is how to use the cloud as a business enabler.
On this front, companies like Salesforce.com and SuccessFators continue to push forward. Without installing any software, vendors can manage the entire customer lifecycle or HR processes with greater data detail and accuracy than ever before. No longer do you need a file cabinet of paperwork or indecipherable database for these important business processes. Outsourced to the cloud, your data becomes globally accessible and more secure and redundant -- all while saving you real money.
But as the cloud becomes more pervasive, maximizing the value for your business means going beyond Salesforce.com and Gmail. What if the cloud could help you keep your business on the cutting edge? Start thinking about the cloud as more than just a tool you use -- anyone you do business with should be in the cloud as well.
The cloud can level the playing field
Small and mid-sized businesses have long missed out because of their size: they don't have the budget to buy hardware and don't have the scale to show up on the radar of innovative software vendors. The cloud is leveling this playing field.
As an executive, your number-one job is to sell your product -- and there are hundreds of hardware and software solutions that could potentially help you achieve that goal. If only it was easy to decide which one to choose. It's not. You are inundated with calls, e-mails, and advertisements from countless vendors and, if you're like me, ignore most of them. Or, you select a few to try and next thing you know, your team has invested days or weeks evaluating products. But here too, the cloud can help.
There is a new cloud model for software sales that is enabled by what we call IT as a Service (ITaS). ITaS changes the economics of product demos and evaluations significantly -- instead of days, they take minutes to set up. Using ITaS , software vendors can provide actual, hands-on IT (such as fully functional product demos) to multiple end-users in minutes without any on-site presence. In the end, it's you (the buyer) who benefits most because you can test each product without the tribulations of costly and time-consuming on-site evaluations and ensure that ultimately you receive the best product for you. Some of the largest software vendors in the world have embraced this vision of using the cloud to optimize and speed sales cycles (Cisco, SAP, and McAfee are early adopters). This is where the cloud is going.
Imagine if, instead of having to endure countless marketing pitches, you can get your hands on any IT product you are interested in and try it within minutes -- without delay or download. This is yet another way the cloud can save you time and, as a result, money.
Products that enable ITaS are by no means the first non-traditional uses of the cloud to make your life easier. Salesforce, Google, Ooyala, Discus, and Cordys for instance all deliver relevant cloud services to the small business market.
Your business's size is no longer a limiting factor. As we see more SaaS and ITaS, even a two-person company can buy from the big boys -- the Ferrari's of enterprise software -- and test-drive before they buy. The cloud can help you gain access to new solutions and ensure they match your business needs -- all without wasting your valuable time.
SIDEBAR: Tips for proactively managing your Cloud migration
- If you can hold it, question it. Physical assets cost you money. In many instances, there is no longer a reason to have hardware. Wave goodbye to external hard drives, e-mail/Web servers and filing cabinets. Your business will be lower¬-cost in the cloud.
- Do what you do best. You have limited hours -- spend them wisely. Why waste time with tedious CRM or HR processes -- it's not what you like to do OR what you are best at. Outsource those tasks -- Saleforce.com and SuccessFactors would be happy to do it for you -- and focus on your core business instead.
- Don't just save money -- make money. Be proactive. Don't get caught up treating the cloud as merely a vehicle for cost reduction. Executing core functions in the cloud can make your company more agile and more effective.
- Expect others to move to the cloud. To fully capitalize on the cloud, you should ensure that your business partners are leveraging the cloud in their interactions with you. Expect instantaneous demos of software you are considering buying.
(Zvi Guterman, is CEO and co-founder of CloudShare, a cloud computing service provider. Previously, Guterman co-founded and served as CTO of Safend, an endpoint security company. He holds a PhD in Computer Science from the Hebrew University.)