Strategize and Organize – SMBs’ Best Use of the Cloud

Why your SMB cloud strategy could benefit from an integrated approach

Via ZDNET (Heather Clancy)

For many small businesses, one of the biggest perceived advantages of migrating to cloud applications and infrastructure services is the management proposition, the idea that it will free up their staff from an unwanted IT burden.

In some ways, that’s very true, since updates happen behind the scenes and provisioning usually can be handled very easily by individuals.

But if your small company decides to embrace a whole suite of cloud services – especially if it wants to integrate them with existing applications hosted within an on-premise server — it should consider working with a managed service provider (MSP) to make the administration simpler. The benefits of doing so include being able to offer employees access from a centralized Web portal for all applications, consolidating where data is stored and secured, and ensuring that collaborative processes can bridge multiple applications.

There are literally dozens of former VARs and IT solution providers cropping up to offer this sort of functionality as a managed service. One example is TOGLcloud, a hosted offering developed by a group of MSPs that felt most of the current offerings weren’t designed with smaller businesses in mind.

I’m not going to try to name all the options here, but there are several lists published by MSPMentor that offer a good jumping off point for anyone wanting to research their options. (Warning, you’ll have to register to get to most of the content.)

One of the more established players included on MSPMentor’s North American lists that is focused specifically on helping small businesses build an integrated approach to cloud strategy is eight-year-old ComputerSupport.com, with its ITAnyWhere Cloud offering.

“Small businesses can log into one place, all their files, all their productivity tools are there. Their Salesforce.com is there, too,” said Kirill Bensonoff, founder of the company. “They no longer need to have any infrastructure other than these services.”

What makes ComputerSupport.com interesting are relationships with some pretty big–name players when it comes to hosted desktop and cloud infrastructure services: it is an Amazon Web Services Consulting Partner, specializing in the cloud service provider’s QuickStart services; a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner that can migrate small companies to a managed Office365 service; and a Citrix Silver Solution Advisor and Service Provider that offers access to the cloud through Citrix XenApp and Citrix XenMobile. It has VMware, ShoreTel and SonicWall credentials. What’s more, ComputerSupport.com is even a member of the Apple Consultants Network.

The ITAnyWhere Cloud service, currently in its third generation, runs on top of AmazonWeb Services, for scalability, compliance support, security and multiregion access. Small companies can log in through a portal, where managers can handle provisioning, or remove and add users quickly. The services are supported 24×7 by ComputerSupport.com, which also handles migration of legacy applications into the hosted environment if appropriate. It’s a fixed-fee offering, but Bensonoff declined to reveal pricing. That depends, in part, on the migration and setup required by the business.

Most of ComputerSupport.com’s customers are small businesses with 30 to 50 employees that originally had at least one server managed in-house, Bensonoff said.

Maybe all of this is more than your business can handle, but if a piecemeal cloud apps strategy is starting to create management headaches as your team grows and becomes more mobile  — and you don’t have the in-house staff to sort them out — a turnkey approach like ITAnyWhere Cloud might be worth an evaluation.

Amazon Web Services

Amazon Web Services logo

Amazon is a diverse company. Its financial reports do not break down its revenues into detailed categories but it’s obvious that it has a vast retailing presence in media, electronics, and general merchandise; and it sells a lot of Kindles, including Kindle Fires that arguably make Amazon one of the more successful competitors against Apple in the tablet market.

There’s another category on its quarterly reports labeled “Other” which hides Amazon Web Services, one of Amazon’s most interesting ventures.

Amazon has built a global network of servers that are highly reliable, massively redundant, and very secure. It makes them available to developers very inexpensively as a cloud computing platform. Amazon has stayed ahead of Google and Microsoft in making cloud servers and cloud storage available to all.

You won’t recognize most of the services offered through AWS but you’ll get an idea of the scope of the operation by looking at Wikipedia’s list of AWS products.

Amazon Web Services - Wikipedia list of AWS products

One of those products, Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3), has gotten much of the attention so far. Basically developers can write a program that stores files in the cloud and use Amazon S3 as the storage space with confidence that the storage will be safe and cheap.

When you use Dropbox, your files are stored on Amazon S3 servers. Amazon S3 is used to store data for Tumblr and Posterous. Backup programs are being built to store backups in Amazon S3. It’s far cheaper and more effective for a growing company to use S3 to hold your files instead of building its own global server network.

Another AWS service, Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) provides something that network administrators are still getting their heads around. Basically it allows anyone from an individual to a Fortune 500 company to spin up a virtual server and operate it for a limited time for a specific project, or operate it continuously to run line-of-business programs. Either way, it costs almost nothing.

Last month Amazon made the experience even more friendly with the introduction of theAWS Marketplace, where a variety of business applications can be discovered and deployed with a minimum of expense and difficulty. From GigaOM:

“Nearly every company needs to run document management systems, CRMs, wikis, bug trackers, project management tools and other web-based software. Server applications tend to be tricky to setup and require a non-trivial amount of sys-admin knowledge to run and maintain. The AWS Marketplace encapsulates all that complexity and allows end users to discover, purchase and deploy complete server applications with one click. . . . This significantly lowers the barrier of adoption of cloud computing at the departmental level, making it easier for business units to bypass traditional IT. Why wait weeks to have a server delivered and setup when you can get pretty much the same result by whipping out your credit card and paying $50 a month for a small instance running the app you need now?”

AWS continues to be aimed primarily at enterprise IT departments, IT pros and developers. As an end user or businessperson you’re not going to go lightly over to the AWS Marketplace and spin up a project management system or SQL database. It’s a big and complex platform.

For IT departments, IT pros and developers, though, it changes everything to have so many hard things done automatically, preconfigured, cheap. As more people become familiar with the Amazon tools, it will likely grow exponentially. Microsoft, Google, Rackspace, and others are competing with Amazon to build out their own global networks and offer the same kind of services but Amazon is a rather large step ahead. Amazon may win the loyalty of application vendors, who do not always have the resources to develop for many different platforms; and Amazon may deliver the most customers if its marketplace begins to be widely used by businesses.

Descriptive Camera - Amazon Mechanical Turk

One recent report highlighted the unbelievable variety of things that creative people can do with the AWS platform. One of the AWS services is named “Amazon Mechanical Turk.” Programmers can send requests through Mechanical Turk to human beings who receive a small payment for completing a task that a computer cannot do. There are people around the world who have signed up to get micropayments for quick decisions – choosing the best photograph of a storefront, writing a product description, or identifying a performer on a music CD.

Last month the “Descriptive Camera” turned up on the gadget sites, a project done for an NYU class that demonstrates some of the awesome power that can be unleashed cheaply.

The Descriptive Camera takes a picture and uploads it to Mechanical Turk.

Three minutes later, a little printer spits out a slip of paper with a prose description of what was in the picture.

Sample photo and description:

Descriptive Camera - Amazon Mechanical Turk

That’s an awesome display of technology and outsourcing. Think it’s pointless? Look forward a few years and imagine that your camera automatically gets that kind of metadata and stores it in each image, where your camera already records shutter speed and date and time. You’d have a whole new way to search through your photos, wouldn’t you?

Watch for references to AWS. You’re likely to see it mentioned more and more frequently in the next few years.

Guest Contributor, Bruce Berls. Originally posted at Bruceb.com

Disaster Recovery & Business Continuity – Options from the Cloud

Business Continuity with Cloud Based Services

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Disaster recovery can be a much needed asset when introduced into a cloud environment. If properly prepared, it can be an ace you’ll want in your bag and can help your business prevent and/or rebound more quickly from any number of catastrophes. One surefire way you can prepare your business to better withstand the unexpected is through a virtualization strategy that incorporates cloud solutions. Consolidating physical hardware and running virtual machines in the cloud creates a safe haven for your business’s data. If physical disaster strikes, it probably will only be a matter of minutes before your business can migrate to the DR datacenter, while restoring and repairing physical server environments could take anywhere from hours to days.

There are various cloud solutions, such as Microsoft’s Hyper-V and VMWare, and now even Apple has gotten into the mix, offering numerous solutions to help businesses virtualize and manage their IT infrastructures on the iClloud platform. Through a single Web-based console, your IT staff can perform a range of actions that help prevent disasters like data breaches, corruption caused by malware or unauthorized use.  These tools also support business continuity during disaster, since they enable IT staff to provide remote assistance, monitoring equipment and more.

If your IT strategy doesn’t include a disaster recovery or business continuity component, don’t wait for the next water main leak, fire or network failure to occur before you add one. Also, make sure your BC plan integrates into the overall communications and business plan for your organization. Having an organized plan that takes all critical functions of the business into account will make recovering from disaster considerably easier and less painful.

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