Tips For Tapping The Cloud

It’s no secret that more and more businesses are flying high these days. That is, they’re computing in the cloud to save money and resources. But did you know that SMBs are one of the largest consumers of the cloud? And that, according to IDC, the SMB cloud market is expected to grow more than threefold in the next three years, from $16.5 billion to more than $55.5 billion by 2014?

But small and midsize businesses shouldn’t be ascending to the cloud just for the sake of “riding the fad.” There should be clear-cut reasons–cost savings and increased efficiencies–for moving up the stratosphere. For many businesses, a hybrid computing solution that integrates both in-house and cloud-based applications is the smartest way to go, at least for the time being.

How does a small biz assess whether a cloud-based offering is a good fit? According to Nate Odell, director of marketing at Seattle-based Skytap, a cloud computing provider, there are a handful of criteria that these companies should be thinking about. Let’s take a look:

Usability. How easy is the cloud solution to configure? How long does it take to get it up and running? Is the solution user-friendly? “These are all especially important considerations for SMBs,” says Odell. “A cloud solution should provide [robust] self-service, so that users can take off running without extensive training. …If you can use a computer, you can use Skytap’s cloud solutions. Users can spin out a virtual environment with just a few clicks of the mouse.” Adds Odell: “The cloud offering should be a business solution that’s as simple to use as a consumer app.”

Affordability. For SMBs, budget constraints are par for the course. Using the cloud should save you money, not stretch your purse strings. Odell says pay-as-you-go options are critical when it comes to the cloud. “Ask yourself whether you can align costs with actual usage,” he says. “You shouldn’t be incurring the costs of hardware, IT management, etc., when you’re not using the solution. You should be able to suspend or turn off the service whenever you want.” And the solution should be reasonably priced to start with, he says, adding that users can enjoy Skytap for a couple hundred dollars a month.

Solution-centeredness. Does the cloud solution solve your business problem immediately? For a small business, that “problem” usually involves limited something-or-other, whether funds, IT resources, or whatever. The cloud should address a need, Odell says, and not be used just because it’s the hot new thing or because of a company mandate.

Visibility and control. These are two things that IT teams crave. Does the cloud solution provide it? For example, can security and usage policies be easily deployed across the company? “Most CIOs would agree that this is a very important consideration,” Odell says.

Flexibility. Can you easily re-create your current environment and run existing applications? “Most SMBs have invested a lot of time and money on the business applications that they use every day,” Odell says. “They don’t want to have to rewrite those apps when they move to the cloud.” Also, what options are available for collaboration?

“Using the cloud isn’t just about having a solid infrastructure in place, with a cloud server being hosted somewhere,” says Odell. “It’s not just about storage. It’s about empowering users with an easy-to-use solution. It’s also about scalability, elasticity, and economy.”

To date, Skytap has about 150 customers, and about one-third of them are SMBs. Odell says the company’s cloud solutions are used by companies in an array of verticals, but they’re especially popular with the application/software developer set.

Buildingi, which provides its clients with technology solutions for managing their real estate portfolios, uses Skytap’s cloud offerings to develop and test software apps. With Skytap, the company was able to align its costs with business value and harness the power of collaboration by “snapshotting,” creating, and sharing projects in the cloud. As a result, Buildingi has cut its development iteration cycles by more than 25% and saved $150,000 in capital expenses.

“Some cloud solution providers handle the infrastructure side of things very well, but they don’t empower users with an easy-to-use solution,” says Odell. “Some empower users but don’t offer a very good infrastructure. We’re providing not only the infrastructure but a user-friendly web interface as well.”