Businesses may find
benefits in remote services
in the clouds
By Eric Taub
YOU’RE A SAVVY computer user. You scan
your hard drive for viruses. You regularly
upgrade your applications. You back up your
company’s data to an external hard drive. And
then a natural disaster hits, your office is
flooded and you lose everything anyway.
That’s one problem that Sue Varty never
has to worry about. To ensure the integrity of
her business’s financial data, Varty, a freelance
technical writer and owner of Toronto-based
Wordtree Consulting, recently decided to
move all of her records away from her Toronto
office—very far way.
Varty has switched to cloud computing, a
system whereby she no longer keeps her data
and applications in her place of business.
Instead, they’re stored on remote computers
run by an independent company and placed
in multiple locations throughout the world.
Many uses of the cloud
The idea is simple: Instead of keeping
your programs and data on a computer or
server near you and possibly losing everything through a theft, fire or natural disaster,
let someone else store and manage the material for you in the “cloud”: remote servers kept
in several locations throughout Canada or
Data backup is just one use of the cloud.
Companies large and small are realizing that
they can ditch their in-house servers and let
other people store and manage their e-mail,
and even their favourite software, from anywhere in the world.
Cloud computing has been slow to catch
on in Canada, but it’s an established approach
in the U.S. and other countries. Many busi-
nesses are now using cloud versions of e-mail,
word-processing, spreadsheet, calendar and
presentation software. Microsoft is working on
a cloud version of its Office suite. Sophisticated
accounting and customer-relationship-man-
agement (CRM) software, such as Salesforce.
com, is kept on a remote server and accessed
from a standard Web browser.
By utilizing cloud computing services,
you have less need for an information technology (IT) department, and you don’t have
to burn a backup CD every Saturday and take
it over to your brother-in-law’s place.
Cloud computing is growing as high-speed broadband connections become widespread, making fast data transfer feasible.
When colleagues need to revise a document,
everyone can use his or her Web browser to
view it in the cloud and make necessary
changes, all on the same copy.
Security in the cloud
But what about security? Fearful that data
could be compromised, the government of
British Columbia is not allowed to store personally identifying data outside the province,
says Shawn Chaput, owner of Vancouver-based Privity Systems Inc., a security and privacy consulting firm.
Cloud-computing service providers say
that steps are taken to ensure safety—typically
several layers of protection. And customers’
files are usually kept encrypted. However,
business owners are advised to check with a
privacy expert or legal adviser to make sure
they comply with privacy laws before sending
an employee’s or customer’s personal information to a cloud-computing service.
To keep data safe, Chaput recommends
that a defined level of security be spelled out
in any data-storage contract. And that should
include your right to decide who gets access
to your information, and a requirement that
the company will return your data to you in a
form that can be read if you decide to end
your relationship with the firm.
“Our data is encrypted and we have four
levels of replication,” says Mike McDerment,
co-founder and CEO of FreshBooks, the
Toronto-based cloud-computing company
used by Varty, the freelance writer.
To protect clients’ data from destruction,
all information is stored on multiple servers
in one location; that information is then replicated in an additional server, as well as in
multiple locations across Canada. “We have
enormous redundancy,” McDerment says.
Many services in the cloud
By cutting IT costs and by not needing to
continually upgrade both software and local
servers, cloud computing can also be a bargain for many small businesses.
Just by switching to a cloud-based e-mail
service, for example, a typical small business
can reduce costs. According to Forrester
Research, a local e-mail service can cost a
business from $7 to $21 per month, once IT
and hardware expenses are included. Cloud
e-mail can cost as little as $5 per month.
“With cloud-computing services, you
benefit from our ‘economies of skill,’ ” says
John Betz, Microsoft’s director of product
management. In addition to the expected
coming release of cloud versions of Microsoft
Office, the company offers cloud computing
for e-mail, CRM and instant messaging,
among other services.
FreshBooks allows its users to create
invoices that are automatically generated at
a set time defined by the customer. Other
employees and subcontractors can access
the database from anywhere to amend the
amount of work done on a project. Invoices
can then be sent via e-mail or snail mail.
Varty appreciates the flexibility that a
cloud application gives her business, eliminating the need to do manual arithmetic calculations. “With FreshBooks, I can prepare special
invoices for international clients that automatically leave off GST [goods and services
tax],” she says. “And my accountant can see
my books right in his office, without me having to lug hard copies to him.” C
Eric Taub is a frequent contributor to The