Are you unsure exactly what the cloud is and whether it would be beneficial to your small business strategy? In short, the cloud is merely the Internet. Cloud computing is an alternative to expensive business computers and computer networks. Here is a description of the cloud and cloud computing services, beginning with a basic understanding of the Internet and the World Wide Web.
If you use business computers, you may be familiar with software programs such as Microsoft Office, Intuit QuckBooks, and Adobe Acrobat to create and store files such as letters, budgets, forms, and other small business documents. Typically, you purchase and install computer software and save files on your business computer or the private computer network at your place of business. However, you could use the cloud, and access software programs and store files via the Internet.
What exactly is the Internet?
The Internet is not a physical thing. The Internet is a general infrastructure. Briefly stated, the Internet is a network of networks. More specifically, the Internet is an independent, open architecture, self-regulating global computer network that is not controlled by any one group or company. Here are a few basic concepts that describe the Internet:
- The Internet is a worldwide network composed of many computer (and non-computer) devices that can communicate with each other using special software protocols.
- Internet communication is based on software protocols known as Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) that allows every network on the Internet to connect to every other network.
- Regional groups throughout the globe support the processes that control the Internet, for example to monitor security and to register domain names and Internet Protocol (IP) addresses.
The World Wide Web
The World Wide Web (The Web) is an Internet or service for retrieving information in the form of web pages. Examples of Web pages include a group of pages that form a website or PDF documents downloaded from a website. To be accessible, Web pages are written in HyperText Markup Language (HTML) and assigned an online address called a Uniform Resource Locator (URL). A Web browser is the software that allows users to search for, view, and download web pages. Examples of Web browsers include Apple Safari, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, and Mozilla Firefox. Examples of other Internet networks with which you may be familiar are Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter.
Internet or web-based services, aka cloud computing
As suggested earlier, you may be familiar with using software applications and storing files on your business computer or private computer network. Instead, you could use cloud computing to use software applications and store files “in the cloud” or on the Internet. How and where cloud computing resources are used and stored is not your concern. You just know you can get to them when you need them. When using the cloud, as long as you have access to the Internet, you have access to cloud computing software and storage services, from any device in your company or from any physical location.
Cloud computing software is referred to as software-as-a-service or SaaS. One common example of cloud-based software with which you may already be familiar is Web-based email. Popular email SaaS include Microsoft Outlook.com (formerly Windows Live Hotmail), Yahoo! Mail, and Google Gmail. Some examples of cloud computing file storage services include Instagram, YouTube, and DropBox, which allow you to store photos, videos, and files, respectively.
In any size business, cloud computing software and services can take the place of in-house computing resources. For a small business, using the cloud may help you function like larger company and better compete in the business marketplace. Here are some advantages and disadvantages to using cloud software or services.
Advantages of using the Cloud
- Centralized business computer software. Rather than individual software that needs to be installed and maintained on each computer, the cloud can provide computer services via a single installation.
- Reduced business computer costs. The computer you own can be simple, inexpensive models that need only to access the Internet. Cloud computing can provide the power to run software, licensing for multiple users, software applications, and file storage.
- Reduced business computer support costs. Without the need for in-house support for computer technology, you need to hire only employees who focus on your core product or service.
- Universal computer and device access. Cloud computing allows access to software applications and files from one or more office computers, as well as home computers and smartphones.
- Location-independent Internet access. Cloud computing allows access to software applications and files from any location with an Internet connection, including the office, home, or while traveling.
- Sharing and collaboration. Cloud computing provides an easier way for a group of people who are not in the same physical location to share information and collaborate on work. For example, sharing files or to holding group meetings through an Internet video phone service such as Skype.
Disadvantages of using the Cloud
- Requires an Internet connection while using software or files.
- Increases cost of Internet services (including connection bandwidth or speed as well as software or other services), which should be more than offset by the reduced need for in-house computer hardware, software, and support costs.
- Increases need for security and privacy. Access to information needs to be protected with methods such as secure or authenticated Internet connections, passwords, and privacy settings.
- Synchronization problems if files are used by multiple people at the same time, or are downloaded to an individual computer and used offline (while not connected to the Internet).