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Top 10 Cloud Computing Questions & Answers

Ready to go cloud surfing? Take a look at these questions first, so you know what to ask cloud providers.

From one-man bike shops to 10-person staffing firms, small businesses everywhere are talking about the cloud and its potential to lower costs.

Learn how the cloud can help you spend less time under the desk performing shoestring repairs on your PC — and free up more time for mission-critical activities, like generating leads. Here are the top 10 questions that small shops need to ask before taking flight into the cloud:

1. How much will it cost?

As with any other technology issue, the answer to this one is: it depends. The first step is to determine all the potential costs, so ask cloud providers for a list of every possible expense that could crop up. Common expenses include data-storage costs; one-time fees for moving data; uploads and downloads; general network bandwidth fees; and maintenance costs. Fortunately, most cloud providers will give you a free quote and work with you on pricing, making it easier to compare providers.

2. What do I need to know about security?

Cloud computing creates certain security issues because it requires different levels of configuration and management, for both software and hardware. That means there are risks, but it also means there are distinctive strategies for protection. Your cloud provider should be able to go over the tactics needed to keep your data safe, including encryption, identity management and physical security. Every cloud provider has a data-recovery and business-continuity plan in place, so ask about these when you're shopping around.

3. What can be outsourced to the cloud?

Most small businesses use the cloud for data backup (including both short-term storage and long-term archiving), but application-based operations can also be outsourced. For example, if you want to use customer relationship management (CRM) software, you could tap into a cloud provider’s CRM apps instead of paying for per-desk licensing and other fees.

4. Will I need extra IT help to make the transition?

Most likely, you won't need to hire a technology guru, but having some IT help can make the process simple, efficient and speedy. Many outsourced IT professionals have worked with numerous small-business customers, so they know the types of issues that can arise. Plus, they’re familiar with strategies for getting you into the cloud with minimal hassle. An IT partner also can help you take advantage of all the services a cloud provider offers and provide vendor-neutral advice.

5. Do I have to purchase new hardware?

Maybe. Sometimes, a network needs to be optimized for cloud-computing services, and that can involve purchasing newer desktop or laptop machines. But most companies can take advantage of cloud offerings without making a substantial investment.

6. How can I determine whether it’s right for my business?

Here’s where a deep dive into costs and benefits can come in handy. Get a grasp of any cloud-related expenses (e.g., hardware upgrades, monthly fees and outsourced IT consulting), and then compare those numbers to what it might cost to run the same level of computing power in-house. Many companies find they save money through cloud computing because they don’t have to revamp their infrastructure and hire additional IT staff to realize productivity gains. Be sure to look at other issues, too, such as whether cloud-based backup will be a disruption to your business instead of a benefit.

7. What do I need to do to get ready for the cloud?

Depending on your business, getting ready could be as simple as having an outsourced IT consultant come to your company and make the changes necessary for automatic backup. There could also be more extensive preparations, such as optimizing hardware for faster bandwidth or training staff members in uploading to a cloud provider.

8. How can I make sure I always have access to my data?

A cloud provider should be able to outline access, security, services, support and other specifics in a service-level agreement. These agreements detail what happens if there’s an outage or if the cloud provider goes out of business, and protects you in certain circumstances. To be truly confident about data storage, however, experts usually recommend using multiple services instead of a single provider. Some companies, for instance, choose to back up mission-critical data to a cloud provider as well as to a different online backup service.

9. Is there anything a cloud provider can’t provide?

One of the few things cloud providers generally can’t deliver is guaranteed uptime. Some come very close, promising 99.99 percent uptime, but very few offer 100 percent. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll experience downtime at some point; it just means you should have a plan in place in case you are ever faced with downtime.

10. What happens in the event of data loss?

Much like the answer for costs, we go back to this: it depends. Encrypted data that gets corrupted can be harder to recover, but it's not impossible. Your cloud provider will have a policy in place in the event of data loss, which outlines the recovery measures they’ll take. Make sure to ask the provider about these strategies before any loss occurs, and try to get some examples of how they’ve recovered data in the past.

These answers should get you thinking about cloud computing and what it takes to propel your business toward the cloud. The biggest advantage: you may never have to crawl under that desk again. 

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