The cloud and SaaS have long become winged words in the field of office software. But what’s behind them and how can we benefit from working in the cloud?
Every once in a while, a new technology crops up at the software horizon and is being hyped as the next big thing, revolutionary, or the office worker’s savior.
Just a few years ago, “the cloud” promised something similar. And there’s no denying that it is a solution that has since become an established and elaborate technology on the market.
Nowadays the cloud is an essential part of much of the work we do with our computers.
Cloud computing is growing fast with more and more software and services now becoming accessible in the cloud.
In many cases, users might not even be aware that they’re using cloud services or SaaS (Software as a Service), respectively.
That’s why it’s time to understand what exactly we’re dealing with, when referring to either of them, and in which situations we can actually benefit from making use of them.
On the other hand, it goes without saying that every solution comes with potential drawbacks that you want to be aware of, when deciding between the alternatives.
So, let’s take a look at how cloud computing works in practice.
First, let’s make an effort to understand what we’re referring to with those terms before discussing them:
Cloud computing …
… is an umbrella term and refers to the practice of storing, accessing and working on your data via the Internet instead of on your computer’s hard drive, or via a server located on your premises.
Some well-known examples of cloud computing services are Google Drive, Amazon AWS and Microsoft Azure.
… on the other hand, refers explicitly to software which isn’t for purchase and installation on your own computer, but rather is made available for direct use online via subscription.
SaaS runs on servers located at the software service provider. Access is usually gained via a web-browser and the service is generally paid for by the user through a regular subscription fee.
Some well-known examples of SaaS are the software applications provided by Salesforce.com, SAP, and Microsoft Office Online.
… the division between cloud and SaaS has become blurred, with storage provision and software applications often merged into one cloud-based service.
Let’s look at what the cloud and SaaS have to offer, first.
As I said before, they have found their way into the modern workplace and private use alike quite a while ago and there are good reasons for that:
One of the biggest advantages in using cloud-based software applications is the flexibility it offers.
That’s because the applications can be accessed no matter where you happen to be physically located.
You don’t even have to be in the office. You can be out on the road, at home, on a client’s premises, or even in a coffee shop.
The required processing power is being outsourced to the service provider’s machines.
So all you need to use the service is your computer, an Internet connection and a web browser
It really is that simple.
Also, nowadays it’s possible to combine many of the the applications, data storage, and communication tools you use via the internet to lever their individual capabilities.
Another benefit of cloud computing is a much-reduced IT maintenance and installation overhead.
While the setup process still has to be coordinated, in most cases there’s little or nothing to install on the client side, nothing to upgrade, and no patches to maintain.
You don’t need to bother with any of these issues. They’re all taken care of by the provider who ensures that the software is always kept up to date and available for use at all times.
If you’re responsible for maintaining your own computer, then this will be a direct relief and benefit to you.
But even if your computer is the responsibility of your IT support team, they’ll thank you for cutting their support overhead through choosing to work in the Cloud rather than using locally installed software.
Another benefit of using cloud software is its instant scalability.
It’s much easier to add extra access points when you’re using cloud-based software than when you have to install all the software locally on every computer and device for every user.
Cloud services are not usually tied to specific machines or locations. So, you can easily add extra computer devices, new users, and additional locations.
You also save on hardware. Expensive servers aren’t required since the computer processing is all done on the cloud or SaaS provider’s machines.
Not only that, but keeping your data in the Cloud means you can also save on hardware storage facilities.
Another advantage of the cloud is that, no matter how many devices you work from, you can still keep your data securely in one place.
You don’t have to worry about file server connections and the complexities involved with connecting to file server shares.
Nevertheless, of course you’re still dependent on your own WAN connection.
Your data can often be kept more securely in the Cloud. Providers that are well-recognized for their security are Dropbox for Business, Syncplicity, or Box.
However, we will also revisit this topic in the section that deals with the drawbacks of the cloud.
So now that we know the advantages of cloud computing, which specific tasks can be completed more effectively with this technology?
Since we named flexibility as one of the cloud’s biggest advantages, work that needs to be done from a lot of different locations, such as different offices or even work while travelling are well-suited to be done in the cloud.
Clouds and SaaS are also very practical for work that that requires people to access the same project or files from different places.
Software solutions designed for team collaboration, generally known as groupware, have long been available on the market.
They are prime examples of how you can utilize the benefits of working in the cloud.
While older, not cloud-based groupware tended to be somewhat clunky to install, operate and maintain, cloud-based groupware has changed all that.
It leaves much of that work to the provider and only requires a web browser. At the same time, communication between team members is much easier and their time can be utilized much more efficiently.
This can especially be an advantage when team members of a project are spread out over different remote locations.
Customer service work is ideally suited to cloud computing, especially if you work as part of a remote-based team.
Their activity typically involves access to real time customer account and profile information which benefits from being maintained in one single location in the cloud, yet being accessible to all team members as and when required.
As you can see, there’s a whole load of advantages to working in the Cloud when it comes to your work productivity.
But cloud computing does also come with some potential disadvantages – and it’s important to be aware of these.
The first and perhaps most important issue you should always consider is the security and integrity of your data.
We said above that storing your data in the cloud can be more secure than maintaining it locally on your own machines or on your own premises.
And that’s often true. But to what extent your data is kept fully secure in practice also depends on the provider and how security conscious they are.
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
When it comes to your data, it’s important to maintain multiple backup copies at different – and secure – locations.
Cloud storage can play a useful role in this, but you shouldn’t rely exclusively on it.
Nor should you ever keep all your data backups at one physical location, nor with one single cloud provider.
So, ask yourself some questions about your cloud service provider before you commit to a service.
For example, does your cloud storage provider use file encryption, e.g. end-to-end encryption?
How robust are their login and access procedures? Two factor authentication and single sign-on can get you a long way in terms of security and convenience at the same time.
Do they themselves also maintain backups of their clients’ data stored with them?
It’s not only your data which can be at risk when using a cloud service provider.
Over the last few years, cloud and SaaS providers have seen their services interrupted by hacker activity such as DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks.
Cloud service providers are generally well aware of the threats posed by hacking to their services and strive to maintain high levels of security.
But even some big-name providers have been the target of DDoS and Botnet attacks.
Such DDoS outages tend to last for a few hours. But when they occur, the result can be devastating in terms of the interruption and inconvenience caused to those depending on the service.
And needless to say, your work productivity can suffer as a consequence.
So, you need to consider how well equipped your cloud service provider appears to be to counter hacker threats and to recover from outages.
If you’re working in the cloud, then obviously, the reliability of your Internet connectivity is going to be crucial. But does your Internet connection speed have to be fast?
The answer is perhaps surprising.
Even if the processing involves for example an SQL database or graphic processing applications, it still running on the cloud provider’s servers.
As long as your Internet connection only needs to display data and accept input, with the processing done on the cloud server, then this will probably not be an issue in itself.
However, if large volumes of data, for example complex graphical models, simulations and the like have to be displayed, then the speed of your Internet connection speed can be a factor to bear in mind.
Generally speaking, though, at least in urban locations, Internet speed and QoS (Quality of Service) is becoming less of an issue.
The greatest advantage of working in the cloud is the flexibility it gives you. You can work from anywhere at any time and you are not restricted to one single computer device.
Meanwhile, your data can be kept secure in one place and at the same time also be easily accessible to all team members.
Working in the cloud means less IT overhead when it comes to both hardware and software. Plus easy scalability for adding additional devices, as well as users.
Especially team collaboration can benefit from cloud working. Meetings and presentations can also be conducted in the cloud.
Customer service functions are ideally suited to cloud working, since support team members can benefit from team collaboration and centralized and easily accessible support and customer data.
On the downside, data security and service reliability can be an issue.
Finally, it’s also important to have a reliable Internet connection – both in terms of availability and connection latency, as well as data transfer speed.
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