By The Small Business Computing Staff
If the industry insiders and experts we surveyed are correct, 2014 could be the year that "the cloud" takes over from the local PC/server as the primary platform on which small businesses run. Throw in the continued march to mobility and more "smart" devices able to interact with the Internet directly, and it's shaping up to be the year that the PC becomes a niche device.
Of course, brand new technologies rarely materialize out of nowhere, so most of the major trends to watch in 2014—namely in cloud computing, data analytics and mobile—have origins that go back years. But new offerings will bring these technologies to the tipping point, where they will impact your business technology in more ways than you might have guessed.
Small Business Tech Trends to Watch in 2014
Cloud Computing Outlook Gets Sunnier
As if we weren't already dependent enough upon the Internet to get anything done, cloud software and services will weave their tendrils into even more aspects of your business infrastructure. Indeed, a year-end survey by j2 Global, a provider of business cloud and digital media services, focused on the priorities and wish lists of small and medium-sized businesses for the New Year.
The survey found that almost 88 percent of respondents say they plan to, or wish they could retire one or more legacy business technologies. And nearly 60 percent of survey respondents expect to save money by using cloud services in 2014. Here's a quick look at cloud services ready to serve small business.
Online office suites: Microsoft Office is likely one of the last locally installed programs on your PC. But as businesses upgrade from Office 2010 (now three years old) to Microsoft Office 365, they'll find the cloud-based versions of the applications have the same look, feel and features of their desktop counterparts, with the bonus of access from any PC with Internet Explorer and convenient online SkyDrive storage.
IT services in the cloud: Thanks to Salesforce.com and the other software-as-a-service pioneers, small business owners have grown comfortable with individual applications being cloud-based. But what about the back-end stuff, like your mail server, data backup and even phone PBX?
A growing number of providers offer these essential services to small businesses. And with Microsoft ending support for Exchange 2003 in April, this year may be the time to take the plunge if you are still running that platform. For example, Intermedia is a leading provider of enterprise-grade, cloud-hosted IT services for the small business market, and its Office in the Cloud provides email, voice, file sync and share, and many other cloud services that are all fully secure, integrated and mobile.
On the phone front, Voxox can replace your aging, expensive PBX with a cloud-hosted "virtual" phone system that delivers a range of convenient features such as "local" phone numbers that allow you to have phone numbers in various area codes (a draw for customers who prefer to use local businesses), vanity numbers, departmental extensions, call forwarding, call recording, conferencing and more.
Data storage and backup is essential in any business, and typically requires a server. Exablox offers its OneBlox architecture that combines an on-premises appliance with cloud-based management (called OneSystem) that eliminates the need for dedicated servers to manage your storage. OneBlox can be installed and available to users in less than five minutes with zero configuration, according to the company.
Even disaster recovery has moved to the cloud, with several vendors offering Disaster Recovery as a Service (DRaaS). This lets companies replicate not only data backups, but their entire virtual environments, and store them at a cloud-based, offsite location. If disaster strikes, replicated data can be restored and infrastructures run in the cloud as virtual machines.
Service provider Unitrends sees DRaaS improving in several ways in 2014, including faster recovery times and the pairing of an on-premises backup appliance with a cloud-based disaster recovery solution to allow customers to rapidly recover onsite or from the cloud as the need dictates.
Bringing IT all together: Of course, a collection of disparate cloud and on-site software could be a giant cluster-fail. "Often, small businesses that have invested in ad hoc purchases that result in a fragmented cloud landscapes with multiple cloud solutions that don't talk to each other—which is the opposite of what they need," noted James Griffin, vice president of Alliances, SAP North America.
"One of the more important trends is the collision of cloud solution adoption with the need for company-wide integration IT." Griffin urges business owners to evaluate the infrastructure on a broad, holistic scale—even though you might only be in the market for a module or two right now.