Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) often have to look beyond their own workforces for IT expertise. By nature, they tend not to have distinct IT departments with technology professionals – SME employees tend to be all-rounders rather than specialists in a particular field. But in many ways, the rise of cloud computing has provided a solution to this problem. Cloud customers not only have access to advanced hardware and software tools, but also to the IT skills they need through their hosted services provider.
In the main, SMBs realise that a certain IT expertise is needed in order to maximise the value of technology, and perhaps more pertinently, to minimise risks. Companies cannot afford to take chances with their IT systems – they need to protect their networks and PCs from hacker attacks, and also ensure that business data is kept secure. Installing anti-virus software and using firewalls can help defend against general online threats, and this task does not necessarily require specialist skills. However, data management can be something of a different beast.
SMBs need to follow the correct procedures and processes to ensure data stored on their servers and PCs is kept safe, and IT staff may be required to ensure adherence to best practice. And in companies with limited personnel budgets, this gives cloud computing another opportunity to prove its worth. Rather than constructing and maintaining in-house data centres, SMBs can simply delegate data storage and security to a cloud vendor. This way, they can be sure that IT professionals – rather than business generalists – are keeping a close watch on their confidential data stores.
SMBs attitudes towards cloud computing
Since the emergence of the IT delivery model, some businesses have been reluctant to embrace cloud computing. Many of the fears reported by SMBs relate to the loss of control over hardware and software, and general concerns about the practicalities of outsourcing. Indeed for business leaders who learned their trade in the pre-internet age, the cloud can seem like something straight from outer space.
During the early days of the cloud, a common concern raised by SMBs was over security, and the ability of vendors to guarantee the safe storage of data. Uptake of cloud computing has increased significantly in the past couple of years as the benefits of hosted services have become more apparent, but for some business leaders, these fears prevail. A recent study conducted by YouGov on behalf of Kaspersky Lab found that 62 per cent of IT managers see security fears as an obstacle to cloud adoption. Data protection worries (60 per cent) and a perceived lack of regulation (26 per cent) were seen as significant issues for potential buyers.
But what many people fail to acknowledge are the vast technological and regulatory advances made in the sector since the first, primitive technologies emerged during the last decade. The early cloud was understandably a work in progress, and inevitably, vendors learned from experience during the early days of the model. In 2011, they benefit from a vast body of knowledge and experience working with hosted services, and this has helped render many of the original IT security concerns redundant. The challenge they face is updating the views of concerned businesspeople – some of whom were likely to be committed IT-sceptics in the first place.
Cloud computing can reduce IT security risks
Focusing on the positives enables a strong case to be made for the deployment of cloud computing technologies. As specialist managed hosts, cloud providers are focused on service delivery and data security 24/7, 365 days a year. Security is not merely a side issue for them to address, it is integral to their entire business model. Should a data breach occur, it could potentially signal the death knell for the organisation. SMBs have choice when entering the cloud market, and there is no onus on them to take chances with reputation-tarnished service providers. If a cloud computing firm cannot look after its clients' data, businesses will inevitably take their business elsewhere.
Michael Dean, head of marketing at the National Computing Centre, recently called on companies to look closely at what the cloud can do for them in 2011 – in terms of flexible IT provision and cost reduction. He said that companies must approach the cloud with confidence if they are to derive greater value from IT. They need to understand exactly what the cloud is offering them, and how hosted IT will fit into their enterprise, Mr Dean stated.
By engaging with cloud providers during the planning process, the concerns businesses have over data security can be addressed. Service providers are able to demonstrate exactly how they will look after business information and explain the IT delivery process in simple terms. In many cases, SMBs perhaps just need a little reassurance over the precautions that are in place, plus the opportunity to take a close look at how the cloud actually works. Closer investigation of the technology is sometimes all that is required to achieve new converts.
Understanding is very much the key when it comes to the issue of cloud security. Rob Lovell, chief executive of ThinkGrid, suggested that as education improves, businesses will be more willing to embrace hosted IT. He commented that storing data with a specialist management company is "far more secure than the typical office IT set-up"- and SMBs simply need persuading that this is the case. Vendors have a role to play in demonstrating this fact to SMBs, by engaging with potential customers on their own terms and continuing to refine their products.
SMBs are right to consider security a key priority when reviewing their IT infrastructures, as the consequences of data loss can be catastrophic. Caution is understandable where new products and services are concerned, but over-caution quickly adds to costs, reduces competitiveness and ultimately serves as a constraint on a company's ability to defend its assets. For small businesses, the cloud offers the most economical way of bringing IT security expertise on board, and over time the majority of SMBs will come to embrace the model.