Monday, April 4, 2011

A Taste of the Cloud

For those who don't know what's possible with mobile computing and cloud services I thought I'd do a little analysis of which core business functions you can provide to highly mobile people.

If you are in and out of the office but need to have full access to everything regardless of where you are, now is a good time for you. Here are some of the top services companies use and examples of how you can take them on the road:
  1. E-mail - open up your Microsoft Outlook program sitting in the office, at Starbucks, on the road in a hotel over their wifi.  It works the same no matter where you are.  Just use it the way you always have.  Simple.  Easy.  Powerful.
  2. Mobile - get your e-mail on your phone.  Get your calendar and contacts too.  It's all synchronized over the internet with your corporate e-mail system.  Lose your phone? Securely wipe its memory remotely, get another one and resync.  All of your data is right back on the new phone in minutes.  Access your apps from your phone too if they're compatible - and more of them are every day.
  3. CRM - much like e-mail, you can access it from anywhere.  Some CRM apps are 100% web based, but others are increasingly designed to work over the internet with their central servers hosted in the cloud.
  4. ERP - if it's web-enabled it's easy to access your ERP from anywhere, and many of them are now.  Even those that aren't web-enabled are easy to set up for remote access with technology like Remote Desktop Services that is included with Microsoft Windows Server 2008 and later.  You click an icon on your desktop, are prompted for your logon, and the app pops up just like it does in the office.  You can even print to a local printer if you like without fighting device drivers.
What's a day like in a technology-enabled small business owner's life?  In the following example, John is the owner of Nebraska Widget Company (NWC):
6:00 AM
The alarm on John's phone goes off and first reads (yes, speaks aloud!) him today's weather forecast and then lists his appointments for the day.  He hits the snooze button and it reminds him again in 10 minutes but this time plays some music from his collection so he can listen while getting ready for the day.
8:00 AM
John meets some fellow business owners for breakfast at a networking meeting.  He has a couple leads to share and instead of passing around business cards, he pulls up the contact on his phone, bumps the phone against his friend's phone and the contact is automatically transferred.
8:30 AM
While at the meeting John gets a call from the office.  He needs to approve a contract for a new client that wants to order some widgets and if he waits until he can get to the office he'll lose the contract.  John turns on his tablet computer, brings up his e-mail in Outlook, gives it a minute to sync on-line and then checks for the important e-mail with the contract.  He clicks a link in the e-mail which brings him to a web page where he can review and e-sign the contract.  He does so and the application generates signed PDF copies for both him and the client and delivers it to them by e-mail.  He wirelessly sends the PDF to his portable printer so he can hand a physical copy to his new client later.
10:00 AM
John drives to the new client's office... the one he just signed the contract for.  He has never been to this office, just his sales staff, but he wants to close the deal in person.  He needs directions.  He presses the listen button on his phone and tells it "Navigate to ACME Block Company."  The phone uses his GPS in combination with his e-mail contact list to look up and give him turn-by-turn spoken directions to the client's office.  He signs the deal, shakes hands, never calling the office for help.
12:00 PM Lunch
Since he has been busy all day, John hasn't had a chance to keep up with the news.  There's a big merger going down with one of his clients in Texas.  John is in Nebraska.  He wants to listen to the local news radio show in Texas though.  No problem, he connects his wireless stereo Bluetooth headphones to the phone, starts his world radio app and then selects the right station in Texas.  He listens to the broadcast streamed over the internet while he eats.
1:00 PM
John goes in to the office, docks his tablet computer so it can charge and plugs in his phone so it can too.  He checks in with his admin person and she has already processed the contract he signed, sent the order for processing and submitted it to the billing department.
1:30 PM
Wondering how the new order for widgets is coming along he opens up his corporate dashboard in his internet browser.  The dashboard has several tabs across the top and on the front page lists important and recent items.  The order for his new client is listed at the top of the recent item list.  He clicks the item and the reviews the status page, verifying the right number and type of widgets.  He clicks the "Verified" button and the status changes to show that the order has been verified.  The order is forwarded for payment to the billing department and is processed to his client's credit card within minutes.  The order status then changes to "Shipping".
2:00 PM
John has a sales meeting with his staff.  They sit down, pull up the company dashboard on a projector screen and review their pipeline.  The CRM program they use ties in and all the sales execs record their opportunities and wins in it.  He does a simple sort of open opportunities and identifies some key items for his staff to concentrate on using charts and graphs that are all generated on the fly with live CRM and ERP data.
3:00 PM
An e-mail comes in notifying John that the widget order has been completed, shipped and billed.  A notification has also been sent to the client letting them know the status.  Their e-mail includes a survey to be returned, however.
4:00 PM
John receives another e-mail.  It's the survey results from his client.  In the 3 key areas of responsiveness, value and service the client scored them with top marks.  John clicks a link in the e-mail approving the survey.  The survey is tabulated in the system automatically and pushed live out to the NWC web site where it appears in the "Recent Wins" section on the front page.
5:00 PM
John packs up and heads home to get caught up on some e-mail and review the latest numbers from the billing department.  He opens up his tablet computer out on the deck and connects wirelessly in to the corporate server with a single click.

All of this and more is possible with the right technology and the right partners.

What Makes Sense in the Cloud - TODAY

So it's been a while since I talked about why you might not want to jump in to the cloud yet. Let's talk about why now is a great time to get your feet wet.

Cloud services have matured and the product offerings in the marketplace have really come a long way in the last 24 months. In 2009 we had the bare beginnings of cloud services and the only real mainstream services were Salesforce, Google Apps and some mail applications (Yahoo, Google, Hotmail, etc.) Since then the options have EXPLODED and we're already on version 2 or later of some of the more prominent ones.

If your organization uses Exchange e-mail but has less than 100 users you might be very interested now in Microsoft Business Productivity Online Services (BPOS). For a fixed, low, monthly fee per user you get the full functionality of Exchange - hosted in the cloud. The experience is almost identical to the end user. A short and easy migration gets you off your old Small Business Server or Exchange server and you're now a highly-mobile fully-functional mail user.

Microsoft will be releasing their upgraded version of BPOS in the next few months. It's being re-branded as Office 365 and they are expanding the products offered along with it. For instance, you can now purchase hosted Exchange (and get Sharepoint for collaboration, Lync for instant messaging and presence, and LiveMeeting for group training/presentations) for $6 per user per month. If you don't have the latest version of Microsoft Office on your computer and would like it too you can pay $24 per month per user.

So, now you can rapidly turn up and down the number of e-mail boxes and even the number of Office licenses you're paying for. Those Office licenses are $399+ each if you buy them up front and you pay for them regardless of whether you use them or not!

Take it a step further... you can now rent workstations or laptops (and servers!) with an included service agreement... and without going through financing... from many I.T. service shops. You've been doing this with mobile phones for a while, and lately you've seen it in printers. You choose a level of service you want, sign up for a contract term and the hardware is included. Many of these services allow you to increase and decrease the number of machines as needed.

So, scale up your number of computers and all the software required as needed. If you cut down on staff you're not stuck with the equipment and software investment... simply return it and stop paying for the unused items.

You can purchase many items this way: printers, computers, MS Office software, antivirus software, e-mail services, ERP applications, accounting software, CRM software... the list goes on and on. If you have a savvy trusted advisor talk to them about what options make sense for you. You'll want to have an analysis of the services done and compare the cost of hosting the applications and hardware yourself to the cost of outsourcing. Get a full proposal and shop it to make sure you're getting the best deal with the right combination of hardware, software and services.

So, back to the original question: What Makes Sense in the Cloud Today?

The answer is... everything that makes sense. Do your homework. If you can push it to the cloud and maintain your quality of service while decreasing costs get to it!
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