Need to make a call? You don't look for a pay phone, you use your cell. Need to check the news? You don't buy a paper, you glance at your tablet. So why own and maintain your own server to run your email platform or house your office suite on a laptop? "The cloud" no longer represents the future of computing, it's the present—and we hazard to guess that you can find online choices to handle every aspect of your small business' IT needs.
To prove the point, we looked at what we'd need to start a theoretical business from scratch using just cloud services, plus non-PC devices to access them. Granted, our conceit is a bit of an exaggeration and going "all in" to the cloud is not a fit for every business: Most entrepreneurs would want to use a mix of cloud solutions and more traditional IT products. Also note that the products we mention here just scratch the surface; in any given category there are likely to be dozens of alternatives.
Figure 1: The HP Chromebook 14 looks like a sleek laptop, but it runs Google’s Chrome operating system for accessing the world of cloud-based software and services.
Of course, be aware that cloud services do have inherent limitations versus on-premises alternatives. Most notably, connectivity is the potential weak link: If your business runs in the cloud and you have no Internet access, you're out of business until that connection's restored.
You also need to perform due diligence on the reputation of—and data security provided by—any IT provider you choose, since all your data will reside on its servers. Still, our cloud-centric small business should give you some insight on how to move parts of your business infrastructure to online options—or maybe even all of it.
A Huge Shift in Small Business IT
In the past, one of the first steps of opening a business (from an IT perspective) was purchasing the PCs, servers, networking equipment and other hardware required to run all the business software you needed. But guess what: In 2014 and beyond you don't need to run any software locally, so you don't need yesterday's hardware.
Say Goodbye to PCs
- Technology Then: A laptop or desktop PC
- Technology Now: A Chomebook or tablet
The first piece of hardware you'll need is a Web-enabled device that can run a browser. That's what Chromebooks—the laptop look-alikes that run Google's Chrome operating system—were designed to do. You can also use a tablet with optional keyboard, and of course augment with a smartphone for chores that don't require a big screen and keyboard.
Top Cloud Contenders: PC Replacement
Until recently, our biggest problem with Chromebooks was their cramped screens and keyboards. Taking a design cue from the now-defunct Netbook craze, the earliest models had 10- or 11-inch screens and keyboards suitable for student-size hands (not coincidentally, schools are the biggest purchasers of Chromebooks).
However, we love the HP Chromebook 14 (figure 1; $299.99). With its sleek 4-pound design, 14-inch screen and full-size keyboard, it looks like a high-end laptop, not a toy (well, unless you go for the aqua or red models). It runs Chrome OS, so you can access the Internet and run a few apps locally, and it comes with a 16GB SSD (solid state drive) for crash-proof local storage. (Of course, with online services most of your files will reside in the cloud.)
If you don't mind a smaller screen, then equip yourself and your employees with a tablet and add-on keyboard. You'll be able to access your online services and run a universe of apps locally to boot. If the tablet work style suites your business needs, go all in and get the one everyone wants: Apple's iPad Air (figure 2; $499). Weighing less than a pound, the tablet delivers a 9.7-inch Retina display and storage ranging from 16GB to 128GB. Pair it with the Apple Wireless Keyboard ($69) or one of the many available tablet case/keyboard combinations from third parties.
Figure 2: If all you need is Web access and some apps, there’s no more stylish way to run your business than with an Apple iPad Air and compatible keyboard.
For employees that spend most of their day at a desk, consider a device that mimics the desktop experience—minus the nasty viruses and OS crashes—like LG's new Chromebase 22CV241-W (figure 3; $349.99). It builds a Chrome OS-based "PC" into a stylish 21-inch monitor, giving you a much bigger view of your work than any Chomebook or tablet can. The bundle includes a wired keyboard and mouse, and the machine's HDMI port lets you connect other devices (including a PC) for use as a traditional monitor.
Say Goodbye to Application Servers
- Technology Then: An application server
- Technology Now: Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Paltforms as a Service (PaaS)
Even after Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings became mainstream, businesses were still tied to hardware infrastructure on the back end. After all, you needed something to run your email server and any other shared applications, and your network folders had to live somewhere. But it was only a matter of time before those, too, moved to the cloud. Now you can "rent" server space and CPU cycles from service providers that take care of everything, including server and network maintenance, redundancy, backup and disaster recovery.
Top Cloud Contenders: Small Business IaaS/PaaS Providers
If you are looking for a single provider for most of your outsourced infrastructure needs, consider Intermedia. A leading provider of enterprise-grade, cloud-hosted IT services for the small business market, its Office in the Cloud platform provides email, voice, file sync and share, and many other infrastructure cloud services that are all fully secure, integrated and mobile.
Figure 3: LG’s Chromebase 22CV241 builds a Chrome OS-powered "PC" into a sleek 21-inch monitor.
Lunacloud is another full-service IaaS/PaaS provider. The company offers a hosted virtual server with your choice of CPU, RAM and disk resources, running either Linux or Windows Server environments. Tack on cloud storage and cloud hosting for your site, and you never have to worry about servers again. The company offers metering, monitoring and reporting of resource usage to deliver its pay-per-use model: There are no yearly or monthly fixed fees, only per-hour or per-user fees based on actual usage.
Amazon is one of the leaders in IaaS with its Amazon Web Services (AWS) platform, counting dozens of Fortune 1000-level enterprises among its customer base. But it hasn't forgotten the little guy: The company tailors its AWS Activate offering specifically to startups and other small businesses to help them get started with AWS. Amazon offers scalable server resources to handle your back-end computing needs, storage, database hosting, application streaming and much more—including a complete infrastructure to power your company's mobile app should you build one.
Say Goodbye to File Servers
- Technology Then: A file server
- Technology Now: Online storage and collaboration
Before the cloud, one of the main functions of that server in the closet was to provide central storage for your electronic files so that all your employees could access them, instead of spreading documents across multiple PCs. However, employees still insisted on saving files locally, and everyone's idea of "sharing" a file was emailing it around—which meant you wound up with several versions. Add the headache of backing up all those files, and you can understand why online storage/collaboration services are among the most popular cloud solutions.