Cloud computing has proven a boon to businesses—especially small businesses, for which it hits a particularly sweet spot. With cloud services, small businesses reap the benefits of not having to deploy physical infrastructure like file and e-mail servers, storage systems or shrink-wrapped software. Plus, the “anywhere, anytime” availability of these solutions, means hassle-free collaboration among business partners and employees using the ubiquitous browser. Cloud services also provide entrepreneurs, SOHOs, and mom-and-pop outfits access to sophisticated technology without the need of an IT consultant or tech worker on the payroll.
In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that aside from a locally installed desktop operating system and browser (or increasingly, from a single mobile device) a lot of today’s small business technology needs can be fulfilled almost completely with cloud-based offerings.
Clouds Bring Rain
Of course, cloud computing raises concerns about security, stability, and data ownership. A recent survey found that cloud computing adoption rates have been steadily increasing since 2009; however, the same survey also revealed executives’ concerns over efficiently managing disparate cloud services.
Let’s also not forget that cloud services are subject to outages that are beyond a business’ control. In 2010, Intuit’s site went down for two days, leaving its SMB customers unable to access their data in Intuit’s online offerings including Quicken, QuickBooks and TurboTax. Such downtime stories serve as a sobering reminder that trusting your data and technology services to an off-site third-party places you at the mercy of that third-party’s uptime reliability.
Many businesses are countering that complete dependency by going with hybrid cloud solutions. For instance, companies such as Egnyte and Rebit will replicate data stored locally on a hard drive or NAS to their cloud services, offering SMBs the best of both worlds: local control and access to data and peace of mind that the data is backed up to the cloud. For more on ways to avoid getting burned during a cloud service provider’s downtime, check out: Analyst’s View: After Intuit’s Apology, Cloudy Outlook for the Cloud?.
Cloud Computing, Defined
Many complain that the concept of cloud computing is merely a marketing term to define centralized, mainframe computing. However, the model of today’s cloud computing differs from that of mainframes of the past.
First, the sheer amount of resources available makes today’s cloud computing incomparable to mainframe/terminal host computing. It’s nothing for cloud storage providers to quickly add another GB of storage for a customer simply at the customer’s request thanks to scalable and flexible cloud-computing resources hosted by the likes of Amazon, Rackspace and other providers. The efficiency of delivering cloud computing resources is also credited to faster networking and Internet connectivity at a relatively low price.
Second, cloud computing is a broad umbrella under which many sub-divisions fall. Cloud computing can include Software-as-a-Service where a specific application or service is offered to a customer as a subscription. Dropbox, Salesforce.com, and QuickBooks are all examples of SaaS.
Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) allows businesses a platform on which they can create and deploy custom apps, databases and line-of-business services integrated into one platform. Examples of PaaS include Windows Azure and Google App Engine.
With Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), businesses can purchase infrastructure from providers as virtual resources. Components include servers, memory, firewalls and more. IaaS providers include Amazon EC2, Rackspace, and Google Compute Engine.
Most small businesses will more than likely only need to use SaaS services. For these businesses, SaaS provides a way of delivering a host of software and technical services that would otherwise be cost-prohibitive and difficult to manage as on-premise, local solutions.
What follows is a roundup of twenty top cloud-computing services for small businesses. Most of these services are SaaS. We’re aware that there are many, many cloud services available.
OfficeTime, which records billable hours as you work and generates invoices and reports based on them, is a small business owner’s best friend. By default, OfficeTime has excellent abilities for recording billable time as you work, calculates per-minute cost of your time as you work, and generates invoices. An added it plus—it has great customization options. OfficeTime is available for Windows and Mac.Read the full review ››
Sage One is a cloud-based business services solution aimed at micro and small business. It offers invoicing, project tracking, expense management, and more. It’s got a solid interface and intuitive workflow, but its one-size-fits-all functionality limits customization and it’s not a comprehensive solution for running your entire business. For example, at the time of testing it does not integrate with banking information. However, if project management is a mainstay in your business operations, Sage One is a very good choice. Users also get 5GB of online storage. Read the full review ››
$0-$11.99 per month
Adobe provides a good and easy way to create some fairly user-interactive forms for your business website or social media pages, but the real value is in the business intelligence data analysis tools. Quick and easy-to-use Business Intelligence capability is integrated with form design. The BI components allow businesses to analyze data gathered from submitted forms, which can be embedded in websites, Facebook pages, Twitter, or in email campaigns. Read the full review ››
DocuSign Pro moves the process of getting important documents signed completely online. Its tagging system shows the recipient what to do, and it offers a full court-accepted audit trail of the process. It’s a great choice for electronic signing of documents. DocuSign Business and DocuSign Enterprise add centralized management of multiple users, corporate branding, shared document libraries, and more. Read the full review ››
$6-$24 per user, per month
Office 365 could mark the beginning of the end for traditional, on-premise Windows server administrators. With Exchange, SharePoint, Office and the unified communications service Lync all in the cloud, managing a Windows environment has never been easier or more centralized. Integration with existing Active Directory environments is a bonus for Windows-centric SMBs. Read the full review ››
Adobe Connect is the most capable, customizable web conferencing option available. While slightly more expensive than WebEx and GoToMeeting, Connect’s $10/month premium is compensated for many times over in scalability. The service offers countless ways to engage with participants. And has impressive mobile support. Read the full review ››
$4.95-$9.95 per user, per month
While not as full-featured as Visio, Gliffy provides a low-cost, online alternative for making diagrams. Gliffy is quick-and-easy online diagram-making tool and also has native collaboration capability. Create diagrams such as floor plans, lowcharts, organizational charts, Venn diagrams, and more.Read the full review ››
Mindomo 5 Premium
With seamless desktop and online functionality, design, and interoperability, Mindomo takes the brain teasing out of brainstorming. Users can work through either the desktop or online client, create three maps, and use basic import/export functionality with the free version. The more capable Premium plan ($6/month for 6 months or $8/month without obligation) includes unlimited mind maps, 350 MBs of online storage space and more task-management capability. Read the full review ››
Salesforce.com Professional Edition
$65 per user, per month
Salesforce.com continues to lead in the CRM space, with a robust series of offerings geared toward SMBs as well as larger companies. The Professional Edition is the real SMB sweet spot. It offers full reporting and analytics, custom dashboards, e-mail marketing, sales forecasts, granular permissions, real-time data sharing, and basic customer service tools. Read the full review ››
Intuit offers a powerful, fast, reliable online database platform that’s extremely easy to use, but with elaborate options for user permissions, document storage, automated e-mail notifications, multiple tables, customized reports, and charting. QuickBase also provides a rich selection of prebuilt applications.Read the full review ››
$0-$19.99 per month (for 50GB)
Box’s fee-based version for businesses offers a more enticing proposition than its free Personal edition. Box has a few unique features that you won’t find in other file-syncing services, as well as a decent 5GB of free storage space to start. A paid account will buy you more space and several additional security and collaboration features, but at a much higher price than what you’ll pay for most other services. Read the full review ››
$0-$39.95 per month (for unlimited clients and invoices)
You get it all with FreshBooks: client and product/service records, easy invoice creation and dispatching, document-sharing and reports, and the best integration/smartphone support on the Web. FreshBooks also builds in a lot of collaboration. For example, clients and contractors can access pertinent subsets of the site; this is unusual. FreshBooks’ extensibility also is better than anyone’s: Besides a host of add-ons, it integrates data with sites like Outright.Read the full review ››
QuickBooks Online Plus
$39.95 per month
QuickBooks Online Plus would be an excellent choice for a service-based (or very simple product-based) business that needs mobile access to sales and purchase tools and data, as well as payroll and basic time billing. It’s exceedingly easy to use, thanks to an intuitive interface. Read the full review ››
Intuit Online Payroll Plus
Intuit Online Payroll Plus is the most advanced, affordable online payroll website available today. Its attractive, intuitive interface and comprehensive set of record-keeping, processing and reporting tools make it your smartest choice. It also offers a superior ability to shepherd users through a complex and challenging process, and its extensive support options. Read the full review ››
Abukai Expenses is poised to revolutionize the way we process expense reports. At the front-end is a mobile app (for Android, iOS, and Blackberry) but the back-end is Abukai’s cloud service. Expense reports are filed in three easy steps that require users to type in nary a character: take a picture of your receipt from a smartphone, submit it, and receive your finished expense report. Read the full review ››
Online Storage/Backup and Collaboration
$0-$50 (for up to 100GB)
With Web, Android, iPhone, Mac, and Windows clients, and a nifty “fetch” feature, Microsoft’s cloud solution, SkyDrive, is one of the most complete offerings of its type. For small business using or interested in using Windows 8, Microsoft has made Sky Drive a cornerstone of its latest operating system. SkyDrive serves a lot of functions. If you just want access to documents or media files, it offers simple online storage accessible from the Web. If you want the same set of files replicated on multiple PCs it provides folder syncing. For users of Windows 8 and Windows Phone, it backs up settings. Read the full review ››
$0-$4.99 per month
Google Drive retains all the best features and core functionality of its predecessor, Google Docs, and adds a downloadable app for local file-sycing. With local file-syncing and built in OCR technology to all of Google Docs’ other core functionality—plus, with generous free storage space if you use Google file formats for most docs— it’s one sweet collaboration package. Read the full review ››
RebitPro is simple and easy backup and more suited as a backup solution for power home users or someone with a small home office/ small business. Rebit Pro makes setting up and configuring backup jobs easy. The service provides full system recovery and you do need to do a light app install on a Windows machine but with Rebit’s cloud service, users can back up to 20GB of data to the cloud.Read the full review ››
IT Tools and Management
PureCloud provides small and mid-sized businesses with a risk management tool that gives administrators an easy-to-use and comprehensive list of security issues in the network as well as detailed steps to proactively remediate the problems. You don’t need to be a security expert to understand PureCloud’s report results, either. Since PureCloud is software as a service, there is no hardware to deploy and no software to install.Read the full review ››
lynda.com excels at helping busy professionals keep their software skills razor sharp. While the content isn’t exclusively about digital skills, that certainly is where lynda.com makes its mark. Quality is one of its strong suits. And while you can sometimes find similar video content online for free, lynda.com divides courses into easy-to-find sections. All the training videos are hosted online at the namesake website, lynda.com, where paying members login to access video content anytime and as often as they like. Read the full review ››