Struggling with our tiny little network with its single server and five computers (one remote) I have been exploring alternatives to having to constantly deal with the lag for the remote and the occasional hassle from a maintenance point of view.

That’s when I started thinking about ‘Cloud computing’.

Cloud computing is one of the latest geek-cool phrases that has popped up in the last year or two. Technically, it refers to hosted services provided over the Internet. Those services can be defined as Infrastructure, such as a virtual server, Platform, which provides a place for developers to offer their individual programs or apps and Software, which is specific program or service that is accessed from the Net.

Early examples of cloud computing would be something like Hotmail, to put this in perspective.

None of these distinctions and details really matter. The key concept for us in the industry comes down to this: For those of us operating independently a cloud computing system means alot of our tech issues and distractions can be moved offsite to be handled automatically by a service provider. For larger companies, it means files and documents can be shared and stored automatically and from anywhere.

Most importantly, for any self-employed person or small business owner who always has a hassle when trying to determine the best way to handle all the fiddly tech issues like updating software, reconfiguring crashed servers, setting up email and web services, etc.

These issues are usually handled one of four ways:

  • You re-boot the system. This actually works most of the time.
  • It’s ignored, worked around for as long as possible.
  • The owner or office manager searches the web for an update doesn’t find anything to install (or worse, DOES find something to install) and everyone goes back to ignoring/working around the problem.
  • A third party tech arrives and opens some arcane software, ticks off some boxes and disappears again, leaving only a bill in his wake.

I have been monkeying around with two of the most well known cloud services providers, Google and Microsoft. They have a slightly different focus but provide nearly identical basic services for the end user.

Using the above definitions, Google’s Apps for Business is really a Platform that provides the user with online file storage, a basic word processor, email, website, spreadsheet software and presentation software and THEN allows the user to access many other third-party applications to download and run inside the platform.

So you can, for example, download a client database, project manager, accounting software and scheduler software to work with the existing Google apps. The intention is to be the total software solution, customized with the third party apps based on what you need for a small business.

Microsoft’s Office365 Software service is, as you may expect, designed to work with Office, specifically 2007 or later. Like Google Apps, it offers online versions of Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint etc, as stand alone web apps. However, it also offers the ability to save, open, edit documents stored online using your existing Office software. In addition to access to OneNote, Sharepoint and Lync – it has a voice/video/text chat plus a desktop sharing app so that co-workers can communicate better.

Both approaches allow you to:

  • Store documents and files online, which means you don’t have to back up files, access, create and edit them with any computer connected to the Internet, either individually or as a group.

  • Continue to use your desktop Office to create and edit files and then will sync back to the cloud. Office365 does this directly, Apps for Business uses separate software like OffiSync.

  • Share files available from your smartphone.

  • Grant you the ability to create both public websites and private work groups.

  • Assists you in taking over your email service and run them off online servers.

  • Can run on either Windows or Apple machines.

  • Can currently be tried out on an experimental basis. Office365 in free beta mode as of June 2011 and Apps for Business can be set up for up to 10 staff with only a $10 charge to choose a domain name.

Knowing this, there are a couple of key differences.

  • Apps for Business provides a wide range of application choices, making it very customizable but also requiring alot more research and learning to set up. The included Google word processor, spreadsheet, etc, is not as elaborate as what Microsoft offers but will do most of what the casual word processor needs.

  • Office365 is configurable but not customizable in that administrators can turn on and off options as needed but not add anything not already there. It is centered about the standard Office programs but does not offer additional apps from third party developers. However, since Office is the standard for most computer users, there is much less research, experimentation and set up required.

  • In addition the service is flexible and can be integrated with existing networks so that a head office can decide to remain on its existing network but farm out Office365 to mobile agents or branch offices to save on outside network costs. They can also shift their current Exchange server to the cloud and cut their maintenance work.

  • Microsoft is enlisting Service Providers/Re-Sellers like Bell Canada and smaller companies to assist companies in setting up and configuring the Office365 service.

Cloud computing in this format is just starting to become accepted, whether it is through services like these or even personal use sites like Amazon’s Cloud Player. There are still issues and possible quirks and problems to work out of course as these services begin to be rolled out. Both companies though have started to enlist large corporations and organizations to try out or contract the services as this develops, there will be additional options and refinements and features as time rolls on.

For the financial services industry the possibilities are enticing. For the self employed person it means most of the administrative tech worries no longer have to be expensive, time-consuming distractions. For large companies with many mobile workers or far flung branch offices, this provides a way to offer a secure, unified software system that can function independently, provide shared resources, secured messaging and infinite expandability with little capital expenditure.