We’ve all seen the commercials and magazine ads: move your business to the cloud! Share important documents, files and presentations; use advanced technologies to increase productivity. It all seems so easy and so rewarding.
However, people unfamiliar with the cloud might find that making the move is a bit more complicated than advertisers put on. Just because it’s relatively easy (compared to setting up a Microsoft Exchange server, for example), doesn’t mean you can do it with only a basic grasp of how to use a web browser.
If this sounds like you, you’ll probably need to enlist the help of a cloud expert, or at least someone who has done it before. Here’s a few pointers to help you make the transition to the cloud.
Step One: Choosing a Free Micro Server
You could waste your entire week learning about different servers and how to handle integration. Or you could do what everyone else does and use Amazon’s EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud). Their service is easy to use and provides you with all the odds and ends you need to make the most out of your small business with as little effort as possible.
Before continuing, it will be very helpful to watch this excellent Whiteboard Wednesday video on moving to the cloud in three easy steps. Once you’ve seen the process visually, you’ll be able to understand what your business will need to do.
Step Two: Decide What You Want to Use the Cloud For
Do you just need email? Then you could probably sign up for a corporate Google Apps account and move everything to Gmail. If you require more advanced services like data storage, software development environments or a large knowledge database, then Amazon’s Web Services (AWS) is probably your best bet. That’s where you sign up for an Amazon EC2 server.
Choose the apps and activities you want to migrate to the cloud before choosing a cloud provider. If you require specific apps that are not supported by AWS, then you need to look at other alternatives. You’ll have a much easier time if you are a new business, or have few apps that you need to hang on to.
Step Three: Setting up Your Server
You’ll usually have the option of choosing between Windows (WAMP) and Linux (LAMP) servers. If you don’t know offhand whether you are going to need a Linux or Windows server, you should ask for advice from either an IT specialist or Amazon’s excellent support team.
All you do is upload an image of a server, or choose from one of Amazon’s pre-configured images. Images will already contain your apps and files when they are created! Once you’ve gone through some settings, especially regarding security, you’ll be able to start, pause or terminate images whenever you want, and use as many or as few computing resources as you like. You only pay for what you use.
Step Four: Equipping Your Cloud Server
After initial setup, you can begin setting up your apps and services. Most of the tools you’ll need are available via Amazon Web Services (or your cloud hosting provider, or Google Apps, which we’ll look at later). You can customize as many images as you like, installing software and services that suit your needs. Once again, you only pay for data transfer and instance hours.
This is not necessarily a straightforward process, however, as each app you select or include has its own quirks and learning curve. If you are not the technical lead, you will need to have someone working with you to help you to set up your environments and applications.
Step Five: Handling Email
With email, you have one important decision to make: do you just need a way for your employees to communicate, or do you want full-service email and calendar sharing, with everything that goes along with it? If it’s just emails you need, then Gmail is probably the easiest solution to this problem.
If you need the type of email service usually offered by Microsoft Exchange (calendar sharing, etc) then you can handle this with Gmail, but it’s a little cumbersome. For this kind of email system, you’ll need a dedicated service like Sugar CRM, which can even sync with Outlook.
Step Six: Creating a Knowledge Base
Simplified and improved knowledge management is one of the major advantages of using cloud services. You can use something as simple as free wiki software to manage knowledge, and all of this can be hosted on a basic server instance running MySQL. It’s easy to set up, even for an amateur, and anyone in your company who can use a word processor will be capable of creating and editing pages. MediaWiki is the software that powers Wikipedia.
You can also find detailed instructions on how to set up a wiki server over at lifehacker.com.
Step Seven: Handling Tasks
Every business has one thing in common: there are many tasks to perform. This is where the cloud can be a true lifesaver — or at least a huge time-saver. Use your package tools to set up a Task Center wherein workplace productivity can be increased by streamlining the entire company’s interface.
The Task Center is a fantastic tool that allows you to schedule and automate tasks as varied as regular backups or test scripts, and can reduce your IT staff’s manual workload significantly.
Although it may take you a few minutes to set up initially, and some time to fine-tune everything so that it’s running like a well-oiled machine, once you’re in the cloud, it’s all smooth sailing. Your business will run far more efficiently with the wide range of services the cloud provides.
A Lower-Tech Alternative: Google Apps
If all of the above sounds like massive overkill for your three-man startup, and you’re tired of trying to set up servers and databases that are costly and complicated, then Google Apps can probably fulfil most of your needs.
Google Apps is free for private users, but for companies there is a small cost associated. This cost is negligible compared to the cost of buying Microsoft products to serve the same needs (document collaboration, knowledge management, word processing, spread sheets, etc) so the cost savings are obvious.
However, it comes with a slight performance cost — your employees will eventually get frustrated by some aspects of Google Docs, or one of the other apps they will need to use. However, the usability of these apps improves all the time, with Google’s word processor, and its Excel and Visio clones, being highly usable and reliable.
Here’s a great video explaining how to move from Microsoft Exchange to Google Apps, courtesy of Google.