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Cloud is the new hardware: The evolution of workplace communication

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Here’s an intriguing statistic I came across recently about today’s small business: As of mid-2013, 61 percent of SMBs were using cloud-based solutions. My first thought: Huh? What about the other 39 percent?

The “State of SMB IT” semi-annual report, based on a Spiceworks survey covered by Forbes, explains that of those SMBs with fewer than 20 employees, fully 69 percent reported using at least one cloud-based application. But I couldn’t shake the question: With all of the advantages of cloud services — particularly for small businesses — how is it possible that as late as mid-2013, roughly a third of SMBs weren’t yet adopting them?

Then I realized that perhaps these SMB respondents — or the survey questions themselves — were defining cloud computing too narrowly. Many of us still view “moving to the cloud” as making sweeping changes to our technology infrastructure and processes — emptying our server room, for example, and moving all of our data to a cloud-storage provider. It certainly can mean that, but the “cloud-based solutions” this survey was asking SMBs about would also include collaborating on documents over the web, using a service like Google Docs.

So I suspect a far greater percentage of SMBs are already leveraging the cloud in their businesses, whether they realize it or not. Using the cloud often means making small, incremental additions or changes to your infrastructure — for greater productivity, mobility and cost-savings. If you use the terrific service TripIt to plan, track and share your travel itinerary online, for example, you’re using the cloud for business.

So I’m highlighting a few areas where the cloud is replacing hardware for the SMB. Some of these tools you might already be using but didn’t think of as “cloud” applications. Others you might not even know are out there — and if that’s the case, you might want to investigate them. All can add significantly to your productivity. And all are relatively low-cost or even free.

1. Cloud is the new… external hard drive.
Just three or four years ago (several centuries in “Internet time”), small businesses and individuals needing more digital storage capacity would have to add some sort of hardware to their workspace — another server in the case of the SMB, and perhaps a portable hard drive for an individual.

Now the cloud has given “external” hard drive new meaning, with a host of technology companies (think Microsoft, Google, and even Amazon) offering enormous online storage capacity for free, and a gargantuan amount for a small monthly or annual fee.

2. Cloud is the new… data backup.
Let’s say you’re worried about the mission-critical data you rely on to run your business. A power failure that takes down your server room (or one at the offsite location hosting your data remotely) could create real problems for your business.

Time was, you’d use onsite tape backups or other physical storage to copy and save your data. But what would happen in the event of a fire? Burglary? Simply forgetting to slip in a backup tape?

The cloud offers a solution. A subset of cloud computing is called Disaster Recovery as a Service (or DRaaS). An online backup service copies and encrypts your data (from your servers, employee laptops, even mobile devices), then transmits it to several data centers for redundancy. In the event you lose your data anytime, the service will have the backup accessible to you, online, within minutes.

3. Cloud is the new… phone system.
Not so long ago (except in Internet time), SMBs faced steep costs for an office phone system — telephone handsets for each desk, with call-forwarding, professional greetings and other features, plus phone lines for 800 numbers and direct lines for employees.

The cloud has largely solved this problem as well. For a tiny fraction of the cost of a physical phone system, an SMB can purchase a virtual phone solution, which offers toll-free numbers, professional greetings, multiple extensions (even if they all forward to a solopreneur’s mobile phone) and advanced call routing — no hardware, no software.

4. Cloud is the new… fax machine.
Faxes still remain at the core of many business processes—like invoices and contracts—but the fax machine is the office hardware perhaps most rapidly being replaced by the cloud. That makes sense. We need to process transactions like we always have, but paper, analog fax lines, busy signals, and a big box stealing too much desk real estate — the fax machine screams “pre-Internet.”

Luckily, the cloud can help here as well. Online faxing can replace SMBs’ fax machines and fax servers with a cloud-based service that lets them fax by email. No more fax machine, ink cartridges, paper jams or maintenance calls. Now the small business can receive, edit, digitally sign and send faxes over the Internet, even from mobile phones.

No need to make wholesale changes to your infrastructure to “move to the cloud.” In fact, you’ve probably already begun your move, with small cloud-based services like these.

What about others? If you’ve found useful cloud tools for the SMB, please share them below.

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