If you deal with any sort of IT for business—or even if you don't—you might have heard a few things about cloud computing. It's the hot new solution, capable of cutting costs, providing unmatched flexibility, and easing quite a few burdens for businesses.
However, as with any up-and-coming, must-have technology, the cloud computing arena entails an overwhelming array of service providers, from the big guys to boutique specialists. Each of them will have different types of services—and of course, all of them will promise exceptional solutions for your cloud computing needs.
So how can you decide which cloud components you need—and which vendor should provide them for you?
Do you really need the cloud?
Before browsing cloud service providers, you should determine whether a cloud computing solution is right for your company. Most businesses will benefit from either partial or full migration to the cloud, but it's important to assess your needs ahead of time.
Cloud services make sense for:
- Entrepreneurs and startups without a lot of investment capital, who need access to expensive software or powerful equipment quickly
- Small and mid-sized businesses with no dedicated IT departments or resources to grow their in-house IT infrastructure
- Any business looking to cut IT costs through lowered hardware, software, and staff investments
- One-person companies, or companies with highly mobile workforces, who need access to business infrastructures from a variety of physical locations and devices
The many faces of cloud services
Not all cloud computing is the same. Once you've decided whether you'll benefit from the cloud, you have to decide what level of service is best for you and your business. There are three basic types of cloud services available:
- Software-as-a-service means that the software vendor hosts your software application for you. Instead of installing licensed software on your machines, you’ll pay a monthly fee to access the application online. Google Docs and Microsoft Office 365 are examples of software-as-a-service.
- Platform-as-a-service gives you a managed operating system and database that's hosted offsite to run certain platforms, as well as providing applications and web hosting. Windows Azure is a platform-as-a-service provider.
- Infrastructure-as-a-service is the full cloud package. The software vendor provides the network and the servers and you simply connect through your workstations, paying for capacity and storage on a usage basis.
You should choose the type of cloud services that accommodate your company's actual needs. Smaller companies that don't rely heavily on IT may only need software-as-a-service to avoid the upfront investment in enterprise applications, while tech-heavy businesses with physical space limitations might choose infrastructure-as-a-service.
Deciding on a vendor
Regardless of the level of cloud computing service you need, you'll find plenty of vendors to choose from. You might decide to rely on a large, proven software vendor like Google or Microsoft. If you do, it's a good idea to check for more cost-effective solutions for your business.
In any case, there are a number of factors to consider in on your vendor decision.
Availability: If you’ll be relying on a cloud platform for mission-critical applications, it's essential that your provider is able to stay up and running constantly. Downtime or application latency can be devastating for certain types of software, such as financial or customer relationship management (CRM).
Security: This area has been, and still remains, the biggest concern with a cloud environment. Make sure there is sufficient security in place to not only protect your stored data and data in transit—including your business information and customer data—but also the software vendor's servers in case of natural disasters.
Performance: With so many competitors in the cloud services market, providers are offering performance metrics as a matter of course to reinforce their standing. Be sure to review potential vendors' performance metrics before signing on.
Price: Compare the monthly cost of the cloud service with your budget. Are you coming out ahead? If you're considering a usage-based plan, make sure your actual usage would be less than a flat monthly fee.
Customer service: All else being equal, your choice may come down to customer service. Is the vendor accessible? Do they answer your questions in ways you can understand? You can also ask for referrals, or check with others that use the service to find out what they think.
The bottom line: Know what you need
With all the different choices out there, it can be tough to settle on a cloud computing solution. If you head into the decision with a firm understanding of what you need out of a cloud environment, and which services will provide that for you, you'll be better equipped to make the right choice for your company.