Let's begin with Jason Burton's simplified explanation of cloud computing, which, he says, is your ability to "access data and software that is stored on another system, away from your business."
The remote servers housing information that once lived on your desktop "could be in Virginia, Indonesia or Japan." Depending on the providers you choose and the project you're doing, the data you need could come from one or "all those places working together," he says.
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The primary reason for a small business to embrace the cloud is backup. "If the walls in your office fall down, your data are just a few clicks away," says Burton, president of Chicago Technology Consulting.
Burton's Chicago-based firm specializes in IT services for small businesses.
Backup is one reason Sharon Joseph is a fan of cloud computing.
"I didn't back up anything at all," Joseph says. "Nothing -- until I realized I was incredibly vulnerable. I had a lot of intellectual thought and effort in thousands of files. Now everything is off-site," Joseph says. "I have no hard drive. I don't have to worry about a fire in my office. Everything is stored off-site."
Joseph uses Carbonite, which provides "incredibly easy" system backup. But Joseph is further into cloud computing than simply data backup.
For example, Joseph no longer wonders whether she's working on the latest version of a document for a client. Instead, she utilizes Google Docs.
"We share the document and work collaboratively," Joseph says.
Actually, Joseph, who is principal at Spectrum Consulting Services Inc., Hoffman Estates, prefers Drop Box to Google Docs.
"It's a little more sophisticated," she explains. "I load (my) file into the cloud and it goes right into the client's system. I can take my laptop anywhere. If they've changed the document, I'm already working on it."
As easy as Joseph's cloud experiences seem, cloud computing isn't for every small business. Backup is easy and cheap, but "I'd be a little concerned about uptime (data availability)," Burton says -- although he is quick to add that "Catastrophic failures at (the server) end almost never happen. It's more likely that something will happen at your end" to interfere with your Internet connection.
Cloud or not, your connection can fail "Because someone threw the wrong switch on a Comcast pole," he says.
Your local connection's bandwidth may be a bigger issue, Burton says, especially if, for example, you do a lot of online photo editing.
If you've just spent real money to load the newest version of Microsoft Office on your company PCs, you may not be keen on abandoning that investment.
On the plus side, using cloud-supplied software means you don't have to spend $350 for Office suites for every PC in your business, Burton says.
• Jim Kendall welcomes comments at JKendall@121MarketingResources.com. © 2012 121 Marketing Resources Inc.