Thanks to cloud computing, your business now has access to storage and computing power that, previously, only the largest companies had. Cloud computing can help small businesses become more secure and efficient as well as improve sales.
We’ll explore what the cloud is, showcase 12 great features the cloud provides and outline how much you should expect to pay for it.
What is the cloud?
The cloud, technologically speaking, is a bank of remote computer servers that your business can connect to via the internet.
But it’s much more than that dry-sounding definition. In the cloud, you can store data, run business apps, stream content, develop and deploy software, manage databases and so much more, all for one low monthly fee. You get access to state-of-the-art computers without the need to buy and maintain them on your premises.
A brief history of the cloud
The cloud is an old idea. Oracle launched the first cloud in 1996 with its Network Computer (NC). NCs were minimum spec; a central remote server stored your files and ran your software programs. Consumers never latched on to the technology, however, and the NC flopped.
Slowly, the rollout of broadband internet issued in a transformation. Salesforce started using the internet to deliver its customer relationship management (CRM) system via a browser. In 2006, Amazon began to offer IT infrastructure services; this was the birth of Amazon Web Services. Google, Microsoft, Oracle, CloudBolt and other companies launched their own cloud services later.
The cloud of today
Cloud providers offer these five main types of service:
- Infrastructure as a service (IaaS): These providers rent out storage disks, facilities, IT networks and servers.
- Software as a service (SaaS): Just as the Salesforce CRM has done since 1999, SaaS companies offer predefined services, such as top accounting software and online document storage, to end users.
- Platform as a service (PaaS): These companies offer database management, operating systems and development tools to create new services and apps.
- Desktop as a service (DaaS): DaaS is like the Network Computer idea from 1996, in which your files and programs are run from a remote location. (However, it’s not the same as remote desktop software.)
- Business process as a service (BPaaS): This involves the automation of tasks such as advertising, marketing, procurement and payroll.
There are also three types of clouds:
- Public cloud: This is the cheapest option; you share remote cloud servers with other clients. You’re limited in the types of apps you can run, and they’re more visible to cyberattackers.
- Private cloud: With this option, you purchase equipment that’s hosted at your provider’s location and customize the hardware and software to your own specifications. The private cloud comes with higher setup and maintenance costs, but you don’t share cloud servers with any other company.
- Hybrid cloud: This is a mix of the public and private cloud. You can allocate certain types of files and tasks to a cloud server (either public or private) and to your internal IT network. It’s the most customizable and flexible arrangement, but there are heavy upfront costs.
Businesses can create the remote IT infrastructure they want by selecting the types of service and cloud that best serve their purposes.
How can the cloud drive business growth?
Here are 12 ways you can use the cloud to grow your business.
1. Be more productive
Cloud computing benefits productivity in a variety of ways. For example, you can run reports on your accounting software to determine which products or services sell best and which sales reps bring in the highest revenues.
Integration tools such as Zapier and Make link the apps you use to run your business. This means you and your staff work from the same dashboard and share and edit the latest customer, financial and performance data.
Immediate availability of accurate, up-to-date business information makes it easier to spot and fix the inefficiencies within your company.
2. Keep business data up to date
Cloud computing makes it easier than ever to keep data and records across all departments in a central location. Whenever a business app accesses the central database, it’s obtaining the latest version. When a database entry is added or changed, it doesn’t have to be copied over to other databases manually.
3. Secure your business data and documentation
The latest cloud data encryption tech ensures that all data sent to and from your devices is safe, even if cybercriminals intercept it. This includes all documents as well as all internal and external communications.
You can rest assured that the cybersecurity measures cloud providers have in place are better than any on-premises backup storage servers you could set up. That’s because their reputation depends on being able to store commercially and personally sensitive information for millions of individuals and companies around the world.
Tip: If you want to use the cloud to securely save files remotely, check out our reviews of the best cloud storage and online backup services.
4. Scale as you need to
Before spending money on an on-premises IT system, you need to be sure that you’ll use it to its full potential to justify the substantial upfront investment. It also takes months of planning and specifying.
With cloud computing, it’s different. You can expand or reduce the cloud services you use on short notice, and you pay only for the storage, apps and computing power you require.
Cloud technology is much better than internal IT infrastructure at adapting to companies’ changing needs, and it’s far cheaper.
5. Exploit big-data opportunities
Smaller business IT networks have traditionally lacked the storage or computing needed to handle big data. Plus, few small businesses have their own in-house data scientists.
Now, you can choose from a variety of pre-built data analytics tools to extract actionable insights from your company data. For a small monthly fee, plugin tools from companies such as Akkio and Arize AI can help you reduce customer churn, predict deal sizes, optimize sales funnels, detect fraud, and establish predictive maintenance schedules for equipment and machinery.
6. Benefit from better team collaboration
With cloud collaboration tools such as Slack, you can create closed departmental and project groups. You can then link Slack to the project management tool Trello to show individual team members the tasks they must complete.
You can link both tools to a Gantt app, like ClickUp, to assign tasks based on the progress of individuals or the whole team. Because these apps are synced, you and your team see the latest information.
7. Automate more tasks
Cloud automation of tasks reduces employees’ workloads, thus giving them more time to be productive. Productivity software maps out the work required in the coming days and weeks and alerts team members long before something is due, so staff accomplish more and need less day-to-day management.
For example, a content planner keeps your marketing team a month or two ahead of the blogs and social media posts they need to create. They use AI image creation tools to create custom, one-off artwork and imagery for their content. Then, they use an app such as Buffer to upload content on a specified day and time.
Human resources apps can now automate hiring, payroll and annual reviews. For example, RoboTask records mouse and keyboard actions to make it easier for administrators to open documents, handle automatic backups and run applications.
8. Save money
Cloud apps help you save money in two ways, and you can use that extra money to grow your business.
First, there’s no IT infrastructure, hardware or software costs with cloud tech. This saves money on electricity, and it’s a great way to show your customers that you can be socially responsible and make more money at the same time. Second, you hire fewer workers because the cloud can automate the mundane tasks that people used to have to perform.
With most cloud apps, you pay only a monthly fee (although some apps also charge feature usage fees).
9. Hire fewer programmers and IT staff
The less physical IT equipment you have on your premises, the fewer people you need to maintain it. With cloud service providers, you simply email their customer service team, and they can get you up and running.
FYI: Want your apps to work together? If you’re not sure how to do it, you could hire a freelance programmer to do it for you. There will be a one-time cost, but you’ll benefit from it in the long term.
10. Expand employee availability
The COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of Americans to work from home. McKinsey reported that, of the employees who are allowed to work from home at least one day per week, 87% take advantage of that opportunity. If this trend persists, top talent may choose to work only for companies that embrace this kind of flexibility.
11. Be prepared for business interruptions and cyberattacks
A fire, flood or cyberattack at your business can knock your company out for weeks. But if you use the cloud to store most of your data and run most of your apps, you could continue to work while you’re recovering from these disasters.
Many business owners are afraid of a so-called ransomware attack, in which hackers block access to a system and data, threatening to wipe out both if the owner doesn’t pay up. Neutralize that threat by automatically backing up your data and files to the cloud every few minutes, where they’ll be out of cybercriminals’ reach. [Learn more about how to prevent a cyberattack.]
12. Capitalize on e-commerce
Cloud services such as Webflow, Wix and Squarespace allow novices to build functional, sophisticated and beautiful websites. Business owners can also link these websites directly to their cloud or on-premises CRM, databases and other business management software to keep track of sales, items left in inventory, payment and shipping statuses, and more.
Did you know? Need help creating an e-commerce store? See our picks for the best e-commerce platforms and shopping cart software.
Cloud hosting service providers also assist with search engine optimization to give your site the best chance of being seen by searchers. Cloud software such as Jasper can help you write blogs and product descriptions to rank even higher in Google search results. [Learn more about how to build a successful SEO strategy.]
How much does the cloud cost?
Cloud service costs depend on who needs to use it and what they need to use it for. For simple file and document storage, you rent a block of storage space per month. Then, you create a separate drive on your network or devices that connects to the space, and you make sure employees save files to it. This costs only a few dollars a month.
Software-as-a-service and business-process-as-a-service cloud apps, such as the top medical billing services and the best payroll providers, charge higher monthly, per-person or per-location fees. For infrastructure as a service and platform as a service, the pricing depends on the functionality, number of users and amount of bandwidth you need.
Chris Porteous contributed to the writing and reporting in this article.