Cloud Computing For SMBs: 3 Questions, 3 Requirements

Don't move to the cloud just because everyone else is doing it. Explore whether it's right for you by asking yourself some questions first and then demanding answers from potential vendors.

Michele Warren, Contributor

July 14, 2011

5 Min Read

Recently publicized cloud outages, such as the three-day Amazon Web Services outage, have raised concerns with some companies about moving applications to the cloud. How do you know whether or not to take that step for your business?

Ultimately, whether or not you choose to move your business to the cloud depends on your situation. I spoke recently with Laurie McCabe, partner at the SMB Group, and she offered some key checkpoints for business owners and IT managers to consider as part of the planning process.

Question 1: How well do you manage your applications and IT infrastructure? Are you able to minimize downtime? Can you maintain data privacy for your business and customers? If your answer is anything other than a confident yes, you may want to consider outsourcing to a cloud provider.

"For most SMBs, a service provider is probably going to do a better job of this [keeping you up and running and keeping your data secure] than you will," McCabe said. Let's face it: Chances are your IT team, if you even have one, has better things to do. And the rest of your staff is busy focusing on running the business, not maintaining the technology behind it.

Question 2: How many people use each application that you're considering moving to the cloud and do they need to collaborate? If multiple users need to work together--say, a group of engineers working inside a CAD app--migrating to the cloud makes sense. "But if you have a 10-person company and only one person manages the books, what's the motivation for having that accounting application hosted in the cloud?," McCabe asked.

Question 3: What happens if the application goes down? "If we're talking about online expense reporting, some downtime probably isn't going to bring your business to a screeching halt," McCabe said. "But let's say you're an online retailer and your e-store goes down. Nobody can order from you for however long the outage lasts. That's a different story." Put another way, how mission-critical is the app that you're considering "cloudifying"? If maximum uptime is crucial, it might be a good idea to start scouting for service providers.

If your answers to these (and other) questions have led you to decide that the cloud is right for your business, the next question is how to select a vendor. McCabe suggests you look at three things in particular.

Transparency. One hallmark of a high-caliber service provider is openness. Does the company make performance statistics available to customers? "A number of providers, including Zoho and, offer what I call real-time health status updates," McCabe said. "You can see how well their services are performing, both currently and historically. Offering this kind of transparency puts them in a different league than everyone else." It makes perfect sense, doesn't it? If a service provider is going to boast about 99.999% uptime, shouldn't they have the stats to prove it?

Uptime guarantee. This one's self-explanatory. That 99.999% uptime I just mentioned? You should demand it.

Remedies. Naturally, the standards for performance will be set out in the service-level agreement or SLA. But what about remedies? If the server does go down--if there is downtime--how will the vendor rectify the problem? How long will it take? How will you as the customer be remunerated for your troubles?

Beyond that, whether you decide to go with Amazon, Zoho, or another provider will depend on which company you're most confident in and comfortable with. If you're a small or midsize business, you might want to take note of the fact that there are a number of SMB-focused service providers gaining traction in the cloud space. One of those is a Chicago-based company called Hostway. A majority of its customers--85 to 90%--are small or midsize businesses. According to Todd Benjamin, vice president of enterprise hosting at the service provider, its claims to fame are its reliability, flexibility, and breadth of solutions. "We can handle the client at every stage of growth, from websites and email to dedicated data centers," Benjamin said in an interview. "That means clients can stay with one vendor throughout their entire life cycle." As for flexibility, Benjamin said Hostway is "big enough to have a global footprint but not so big that we're inaccessible."

Tony Tullio, director of Inorbital, a Toronto-based web development firm, can vouch for all that. "The [Hostway support team] is quick to respond, knowledgeable, and always available, which is really important to us and our clients," said Tullio, whose company builds database-driven websites. "They proved they have the capability and infrastructure to support even our most complex hosting requirements."

How likely is it that you'll migrate to the cloud sometime soon? If it's an idea that you've been kicking around for a while, maybe it's time you sat down with your IT team and started asking the kinds of questions that McCabe suggests. It could be that cloud computing is just what you need to maximize efficiency and trim IT expenses.

Michele P. Warren, a freelance writer and editor, has 15 years of experience covering technology and the channel. She spent 9 years at CRN and was formerly the managing editor of VARBusiness, Long Island Press, and Long Island Business News.

You can't afford to keep operating without redundancy for critical systems--but business units must prioritize before IT begins implementation. Also in the new, all-digital InformationWeek SMB supplement: Avoid the direct-attached storage trap. Download it now. (Free registration required.)

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