Small business should be wary of stormy clouds

Cloud computing. What is it and why is everyone talking about it? Well, ok, not everyone, but certainly companies that make cloud-based software are constantly making bold statements like “anything else is just old” and “serious business only looks to the cloud”. Well, it’s not that clear cut.

Cloud-based software, for the purposes of this little exercise, is a program (or application) that you access from your browser. So, like Facebook, nothing actually lives on your computer. You don’t get floppy disks (who does these days?) or anything to load the software on. You simply open a browser and log in with your username and password and you have access to it.

Sounds great, right? Well, it does in theory, and if Facebook is what you’re accessing, then it is. But for business-critical systems, we should be a little more wary. And here’s why in one sentence: They don’t always work. 100% uptime, as they call it, or the fact that the software never stops working, is a myth. It doesn’t exist. That might be fine if you want to put some receipts into an expenses program that’s cloud-based. It might annoy you a little if it’s not available for half a day, but you can simply do it later. But if you have customers waiting to check out or make an appointment, that’s lost business unless you have a contingency plan.

So what could go wrong? Well there are essentially two things that could happen, so let’s have a look at both. Firstly, the Internet could go down. We’ve all experienced this and we’re all so connected that it causes anything from mild discomfort to screaming panic, depending on your disposition, and probably your last dramatic Facebook status. But most of us have smartphones and so we can access most things from our phones, without the need for wifi. In fact, if the Internet goes down, and remember this could be for any reason from your cable operator to a faulty router, then cloud-based systems usually let you access them from your phone or iPad, provided cell reception is great where you are.

The other, more worrying problem is that the software itself could ‘go down’. What? But surely that doesn’t happen often? It does and the reason is that depending on what you’re trying to use, it could be operated by a startup wandering through the fields of investor money and trial-and-error business models, or it could be a multi-national conglomerate like Amazon, who are still not infallible when it comes to their servers crashing.

If you’re a salon or spa, you could find yourself with a reception of angry clients who cannot check out, who may not come back or, worse yet, it could be people trying to become clients and not being able to use your online booking. They will go elsewhere.

Startups often create a program when they have a very small team and a good idea. They’re not always thinking about how to deal with tens of thousands of customers with millions of transactions and so, as they grow, the software often struggles. Some very high profile salon and spa systems have encountered so much disruption over the last two years that they’ve lost many customers and have stopped the ability for people to complain on their social media pages.

So, what should you do? Well to start with you need to work out how risk-averse you are. If you’re happy to swing into town, all guns blazin’, and you want all the bells and whistles you can get, then cloud-based systems could be for you. They may have more functionality, but may also be a little slower to operate. Look at the size of the business that’s running them. 20,000 customers does not make them a large business, so be careful. Speak to other users and look for reviews online. Best of all, speak to an independent specialist, like us. We will investigate for you, provide advice and find out the best deal available.

Speed and intuitive design are really important and both cloud-based systems and installed programs will have pros and cons in these areas. Make sure you try before you buy, especially for a business-critical program. What might be right for one business may not be ideal for yours.
None of us really know exactly where cloud-computing will go in the future. Will it completely overrun installed programs and be the only thing available in ten years time? The truth is that we don’t know and the likelihood is that it’ll probably be a mix. You probably won’t be using the same programs and systems in 10 years time, so buy for the next couple of years. Don’t look further than that and make sure that you build the costs into your business plan accordingly.

Cloud computing is here to stay and installed software is also not going away any time soon, so make sure you rise above the marketing propaganda and look at what will serve you best today.

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