Servers With CloudThere’s a lot of techno-babble these days around the phrase “the Cloud” or “Cloud Computing.”  Use of the terms have made them so generic as to be almost useless. I’ll provide you with a translation and give you a few simple to-dos so you can benefit from “the Cloud” as you start your business.

Let’s define terms. Cloud computing is just using computer resources delivered as a service over the Internet. While there are many, very technical ways to use this kind of power, common examples are “Software As A Service.”

Software As A Service

What do I mean? If you’ve used Google Docs, or have tried Microsoft’s latest version of Office, called Office 365, both are “software as a service.” Your web browser displays a spreadsheet or wordprocessing program and the interface elements, like a ruler, buttons to make text bold or italic, and the like.

The software looks very much like a desktop version of your word processor, but the software is actually running on a server computer elsewhere. Your browser is letting you see the controls, but when you save the document, it is stored “in the cloud” – actually on the Google or Microsoft server.

You can download it to your own computer, or leave it there, where it can be accessed any time you have a computer with an Internet connection and a modern browser. Many of these systems also allow you to access these documents on a tablet or phone.

Cloud Means Convenience – But Is it Safe?

One of the great things about having your files saved on Office 365 or Google Docs is that the files are readily available at multiple locations. You can save a document at the office, and pick up where you left off at home, or, if you’re like me, on your laptop during your commute using a wifi hotspot.

A lawyer friend recently told me she couldn’t trust such a system since she had confidential client documents. Every business is different, but think about your own situation. If you are keeping your documents only on a computer in your office, should a thief take that computer, your client documents are also gone. You may set up a password to log into your computer, but that might not be enough. Some computers allow hard disk encryption – the data is scrambled unless the thief found the password on the post-it note in your top drawer.

Hard drives fail. I have had at least 2 drives fail over the past 3 years. Meanwhile, my business documents are on Google’s servers, and since I pay for “enterprise” level service, I have greater than 99% availability of my data, and it is quite rare that anything gets lost.

Of course, “the cloud” goes down on rare occasions. Last June, a storm temporarily knocked an Amazon datacenter offline, taking down several major businesses for a little while. So, we’ll talk about backups in a little bit. There is a lot more to this discussion, but the point is, you’re not likely to have data taken from, or lost by a commercial provider like Google or Microsoft anytime soon.

Using The Cloud For Backup

One easy way to keep what you’re already used to (working locally, on a hard disk with MS Office, if you’re like most people) and leverage “the Cloud” is by using it for backing up your files. There are multiple strategies for backing up, but the most common are “backup everything” or “just back up my important files.” Vendors like NYC-based Backup My Info allow a company to put software on its  computers that back up all the files on the computer, as well as files on local servers. If something happens, the company will help you to restore the files to a new computer or an alternate location.

For very small companies just starting, a solution like SugarSync, DropBox, Google Drive or Microsoft’s Office 365 can designate special folders on your computer that get copied to the cloud. Files are synced so that what is on one computer is also in the cloud and can be on another computer as well. Imagine your “My Documents” folder being the same at work and at home – that’s what SugarSync allows me to have. I can work on a Mac laptop or a desktop PC and the files are just the same. And, I can see the documents on my phone or iPad as well.

Dropbox is a great way to share a folder to the cloud, and between people working remotely. Items changed by one person get copied to the cloud, and to the other people subscribed to the folder. Google Drive lets you have the same documents on your Google account, useable by Google Docs, and also saved to your hard drive for working offline. Office 365 has a similar capability. All of them have free trials and some, like Dropbox, allow a substantial amount of space for free – certainly enough for your basic collection of documents, spreadsheets, and business information.

Each of these solutions has different levels of security and your needs may vary. I am not trying to answer all possible questions here, only give an overview of what is possible. The one thing I do know – there’s no longer an excuse for losing a document or showing up at a meeting without a file. I know my stuff is always in the cloud when I need it. Is yours?