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The Way Business Is Moving

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Issue Date: August 2008

Are we ready for the cloud?

August 2008
Brett Haggard

The cloud computing era is coming like a freight train and Google is the company in the engine-compartment throwing coal on the fire. Can SMEs safely make the switch though?

There is no disputing that the whole Google Apps suite presents a very compelling value proposition.
If you are using GMail, which is arguably the most popular e-mail solution in the market today, you are probably familiar with the calendar and instant messaging components, namely Google Calendar and Google Talk.
And there is also a strong possibility that you have played with Google 'docs', the free online word processor, spreadsheet and presentation toolset and thought ‘cute’. After all, Google itself admits that this component could do with a little more polish.
When you look a little deeper into what is on offer for businesses, the penny drops that Google is a strong contender for doing the kinds of things that SMEs generally tried to do themselves - buying a server, setting it up for file and print sharing; and as an e-mail and collaboration server.
And the things that generally stood in the way of companies going with Google, or the cloud model are beginning to fade away.
Connectivity not a problem
The first challenge was undoubtedly access to broadband connectivity. But, with wireless broadband via cellular becoming available in most of the areas you would want to use it, the performance beginning to seriously rival that of the fastest ADSL connections from Telkom and the cost structure already rated as one of the most compelling in the world, there is no longer any excuse to not be connected.
Access to basic services
The second stumbling block was that there was not a one-stop-shop an SME could speak to for e-mail, calendaring, site hosting, file hosting and (here is the clincher) to gain access to all of the applications their staff members required to get their jobs done.
This is still somewhat of a problem - but not for companies that require little more than document creation tools (ie, word processing and spreadsheeting).
Today you can point your domain at Google and host your mail, calendars, files, websites, collaboration spaces (like intranet sites) in a single place - and even do some document creation with 'docs'. If you opt for this model you will also never have to worry about version control - users are granted rights to change the content of documents stored in the cloud on an individual basis and there is a full audit trail of all changes.
And by putting your documents in Google's cloud, your employees will always have a single version of the truth.
It does not however suit companies that require access to ERP, CRM or heavyweight accounting solutions. They should, right now, opt for a hybrid model that relies on some locally hosted software and some cloud-orientated software instead.
They could of course opt to remain out of the cloud too and ensure their employees have access to the company's information wherever, whenever by setting up VPN access to their local server. But then they run the risk of getting left behind when the cloud model properly matures.
Going offline
The third issue is that cloud computing requires constant access to the cloud. Or rather it used to.
Google's 'Gears' (http://gears.google.com) API allows for users to work on cloud applications without actually being connected to the cloud. Perfect examples are Gmail (http://mail.google.com) and Docs (http://docs.google.com), which can now be used in a completely offline mode.
Gears allows for the data which would normally be referenced on Google's servers to reside locally on a notebook or desktop - the moment a connection to the server is re-established, changes are synchronised between the user's computer and the cloud.
The bottom line that although there are still some applications SMEs may have to run locally, or engage with more than one partner to gain access to, the basics are covered - e-mail, collaboration, document creation and versioning. And it is free.
Food for thought
If you are worried about the corporate governance issues around using free services, consider the following…
When outgoing Google CIO, Douglas Merrill was here a couple of months ago he made an interesting point.
Google does not go down… ever…
Merrill said the company's systems boast six nines of availability (99,9999%). That is roughly 32 seconds of downtime per year.
By contrast, the average uptime for e-mail alone within the Fortune 500 companies is 94,5% availability.
Where would you rather bet the farm?


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