Cloud computing for the small business


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Like most people I resist change, so when my hosting company told me that they would no longer offer email services, I dreaded the transition. As much as I hate to admit it though, while moving to Google Apps was time consuming (learning curve), it was mostly painless.

Google Apps is a suite of applications that are accessible through a web browser. In addition to access, you can also store files and emails on the Google servers and grant access to other users. This centralized storage and access system is known as cloud computing or software as a service (SaaS). Today, more and more applications are available in this manner and in the coming years, I expect to see the majority of applications move to the web.

Cost savings

My hosting company recommended that I give Google Apps a try and while I only needed email, I found that Google Apps offered much more and solved not just my email issues, but also accessibility, sharing, and (big surprise) surveys. This meant that I could give up my third-party office and surveying applications — saving me thousands of dollars a year in pursuit of version upgrades and licensing fees. Generally speaking 80% of us only use about 20% of any application. If that describes you, you will be more than satisfied with the features of this suite.

The standard version of Google Apps is a free suite of products that includes 50 email user accounts, a calendar, a word processor, a spreadsheet (and forms), a presentation, and a drawing application. Not only are these applications robust enough for most small businesses, because they are accessed from any browser, you have the convenience of access from anywhere you have an internet connection. Of course, if you prefer, you may store the documents on your local computer.

Software investments and upgrades can be a real burden on small companies, but Google Apps provides a reliable alternative to office applications for file creation and the ability to open files from other common applications.

Mail

If you are using Gmail, Yahoo mail, or something similar, and you log in through a web browser, you are already using cloud computing.  The difference is that with Google App’s mail application, you can use your own domain name, and if you have fewer than 50 assigned email accounts, the service is free. (For more than 50 the cost is $50 per year, per user.)

The most-evident benefit is the high degree of deliverability and smart spam filters. With my host company’s email service, I had begun to notice that there was a fair amount of my email being blocked by the recipient’s spam filters. I was receiving several notices a day that my email was undeliverable because it looked like spam. With each passing day, I received more notices — to the point that it became apparent that I would have to do something, but what? When my host company announced the cessation of email services, they recommended Google Apps and it has been a good move.

Spam

Google is very concerned about spam and therefore has aggressive spam filters and spam policies. Since switching to Google Apps, I’ve not received a single bounce or block notice. On the flip side, Google Apps does not allow you to send mass emails thereby protecting the rating of email sent through their services. With that said, if you’re a small business sending regular customer emails, a commercial email service is far more appropriate anyway. (I recommend Constant Contact.)

Accessibility

When you create and store files on the Google servers, you can grant access to others and limit the access to just users in your domain or make the document publicly available. I’ve found this feature especially helpful when using forms. I can poll my employees, my customers, my subscribers, or the world on any topic and the survey results are stored in a spreadsheet that I can open with Google Apps or even Excel. The calendar works in the same way — enable people to whom you’ve granted access to book or view your calendar.

My transition probably took longer than most — I was determined to implement and test every feature before recommending the move to my clients — but the result has been productive and trouble-free.

If you’re not yet computing in the cloud, it’s time.

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