I am often asked “What is the Cloud and how could it help my business?” This comes from the fact that the Cloud has a lot of complexities, acronyms and misconceptions, this leads to a lot of frustration and distrust from the people the Cloud can do the most for, namely the small business owner.

‘Cloud’ or ‘Cloud Computing’ can be split down into three distinct types and depending on who you speak to they say their type is true Cloud Computing, hence some of the confusion related to the subject.


There are  three types of Cloud Computing:-
Software as a Service (also known as SaaS)
Infrastructure as a Service (also known as IaaS)
Platform as a Service (also known as PaaS)


Whilst the rest of this article goes into each of these services in a little more detail this series of articles will concentrate on Software as a Service as it is here where SME’s can make best use of it.


Software as a Service, I have not come across a business in the last 5 years that is not already using the Cloud in this form. SaaS is the renting of a Service or Application via the Internet, these services or applications are normally delivered via a Web Browser or specific light weight or mobile applications installed on an end users device.  Typical uses and examples of suppliers include Email (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft), Hosting (Hostgator, Webfusion), Storage (Dropbox, Box.Net), CRM (Capsule, Zoho, Salesforce), Offsite Backup (Mozy, Carbonite) , Collaboration (Google, Microsoft), Communication (Skype, VOIP), Entertainment (Spotify, Last.fm, BBC iPlayer).


To me the SaaS side of the three Cloud services is the most exciting and I’ll explain later but before I get to that I should give a little time to the other types of Cloud.


Infrastructure as a Service is the most basic and pure version of the cloud, it relates to the renting of just the hardware (no software). The hardware is located in a remote safe, secure and reliable location and the supplier maintains and supports it.  In a lot of instances the ‘hardware’ is virtualised meaning that rather than a physical piece of equipment you have a virtual server created by software on a bigger or groups of bigger pieces of equipment.   The benefits of this is that you can scale up and down your server as you require it.  For instance you may have new project launching which will drive an increased number of people to your website for just a few days and then it goes back to normal, so for those few days you increase the resources to allow for the extra traffic.  IaaS is for those clients who have technical staff who can support the system software and all the business applications that run on it.


Platform as a Service, This service takes IaaS a little bit further in that you are renting not just the Hardware but also the System software, this is a bit like renting a computer with Windows or OSX on it but nothing else, again the hardware is located remotely but the systems software is also supported by the supplier in addition to the hardware.  Again as the renter you can scale what you want when you want it.


Both these Services have their own place in the market, traditionally they have been and will continue to be used by suppliers offering SaaS as it means they can scale their operations as they increase the users of their SaaS Cloud, other uses include large scale short term web sites for Example the Official Website covering the marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton or one off/infrequent  computational modelling such as Weather, Stock Markets, Genome modelling etc.


So back to Software as a Service, Exciting!! OK, so that may be just me but as a small business owner Software as A Service gives me access to applications, software and services which were once only available to big businesses.  As an example my day starts with a Video Call with a prospective client, I use Skype, so my Video call is free and generally hitch free.  I detail the call in my hosted CRM system, as a very small business I could have bought ACT etc very cheap but my CRM is free, better than that if I need extra users next week I just add them and they integrate seamlessly. I start to work on a report in Google Apps for Business drawing in live data from both the Web and Spreadsheets,  I soon realise I need input from another supplier, I send them the link to the document and I start another Skype call with them, as we discuss it we both highlight and change areas, of course we see the changes each of us makes straight away as we are working on the same document, I leave him to continue work on his section and I carry on on my section (but working on the same document).  Trying to get this report done I need some music (I work better listening to music), I heard a great singer this morning on the radio, I could go and buy an album on iTunes but instead I’ll open Spotify and search for the Artist. Finally the report is finished, again I invite someone else to read it before I create a PDF of it and send it on to the client.  I could have given them a link to it but this client is a bit of a technophobe thats why I am working with them. In the meantime I see another client (in the US) has dropped some work into my DropBox (online storage that we share), they also dropped me an email to say what needs to be done. I work for this client as a vCTO (virtual Chief Technical Officer), they want all my expertise, just not all of the time.  Rather than using Skype I use Voice over IP (VOIP) to call this client, using VOIP means that although we are continents apart I am just an extension on their phone system and have a local number in each of the countries they work so its cheap and easy for local suppliers and contacts to get hold of me. The call is about a new user they need, before the end of the call the new user has an email account, a calendar, document storage, access to all their support and new hire documents, communication both Skype and a VOIP extension, not forgetting an account in the CRM and Accounting system, this also sets off a couple of administration processes such as Payroll but these are not handled by me but I will be able to track them via my To-Do list. I also add a couple appointments on my calendar with the new user, they automatically get an invite, just to introduce myself to them. Oh and by the way, I was not at my desk all day, I was out and about visiting other clients stopping off in the odd coffee shop between meetings.


Without Software as a Service and the Cloud this type of day just would not happen or would need thousands of pounds worth of infrastructure investment and support, my cost £200 per annum plus cost of external calls on VOIP and Skype.


Now hopefully you can understand the power of using the Cloud, but what do you need and who should you choose. Over the next few articles in this series I explain what services are available and the difference in competing offerings and also I deal with some of the negativity around Cloud services including total cost, availability and security. To make sure you don’t miss the next instalment follow us on Twitter .


What is the Cloud Part 2 -Security and Privacy