There are tons of articles making compelling cases to take your business to “The Cloud” – this is not one of them – we’ll take a pragmatic approach to reviewing the cloud. Every sound business decision begins with a clear definition of the problem that needs to be solved, but for some reason technology is considered in reverse. Often times, technology is approached with technology first…and then the problems it could resolve. This leads to good technology being applied to the wrong problems (or applied incorrectly).
Let’s explore three broad categories of cloud products: Cloud Desktop, Cloud-based (Browser) apps, and VoIP.
This is one of the most popular ways to take businesses to the cloud. This is delivered by replacing your existing desktops with inexpensive thin clients (a small disk-less, fan-less computer with one purpose: connecting to the cloud) or re-purposing existing desktops into a thin client. Windows is typically run on a server farm at the cloud provider’s data center and is pre-loaded with your data, software, and other tools needed to work.
This option is ideal for businesses that are distributed across multiple physical sites or with remote workers. These businesses also have software that does not run in a browser or they may have certain security requirements that are simpler to fulfill inside a remote desktop session.
When applied properly it can be an effective strategy, however, it is often misused. The most often ignored critical items are functionality and user experience.
From a functionality standpoint, some software applications require access to local devices that are only possible or handled most efficiently connected directly to the computer they will be working with. Because the computer is now a server in the cloud, the devices have no way of communicating with it. There are ways to work around this, but in many cases they result in additional issues and troubleshooting – quickly eroding the efficiencies and cost-savings presented when the solution was sold.
This brings me to my next point: the end user experience. It is often overlooked but when properly deployed it is an understood and accepted change by the business. We sometimes address the most common downside to this solution, lagging screen refreshes, by highlighting the reasons for the transition. For example, one of our clients is a distributed home health care company that needed access to legacy software at all their locations. They were facing a costly hardware refresh (desktops) and instead opted to go with thin clients and the remote environment. They knew what they would be giving up and it was a perfect solution for them.
In contrast, we’ve pulled clients out of the cloud from other providers when the solution was sold and deployed as a “cost saving” measure. The employees at the business flat out hated the performance differences. Even though their software ran faster, the perceived performance difference was picked up on screen refreshes.
Don’t discount how your employees will perceive the change. It can mean the difference between a successful and unsuccessful project!
Cloud-Based (Browser) Apps
The cloud-based browser apps are part of what “Web 2.0” brought us. A rich browser experience that can save values into forms as we enter them and can eliminate the need to install software. Many apps that fall into this category have a user interface that is visually appealing, with colors that are pleasing to the eye and generally suited for the client they serve (font size, dark vs. bright schemes, graphics etc.).
The general downfall I have seen with this category is the browser based apps lack functionality and flexibility. Much of the time spent building these apps seems to be centered on the core of what the business does and few ways to customize the software for variations in how the business operates.
For example, a popular app for service-based companies tend to only have rudimentary functionality for inventory tracking. When exploring this option with my clients, it didn’t fit their model for tracking inventory. They needed software that could easily transfer inventory from one warehouse (or truck, in their instance) to another seamlessly so they could track its lifecycle. Additionally, the software lacked features that enabled several of my clients to use it for new construction.
In another case, one of my dental clients explored new software to run his practice. The software is browser-based and more closely matched his philosophy of dental care – integrating the procedures right into the software. While he enjoyed the ability to quickly check in on his practice from anywhere, he also noted the app had some maturing to do. The deficiencies seemed to center around the finance area and he noticed it after he began having billing/collection issues that he had never experienced before. While the software matched his business model better, it created cash flow issues he did not previously have.
Cloud VoIP is tough to dissect. There are so many providers out there and they all seem to offer similar features and benefits, often leaving price to be the ultimate differentiator… sometimes. Now, even pricing is all starting to look the same. So how can we approach this?
We look at overall feature set and flexibility. Some businesses simply cannot have their phone system in the cloud. There are many reasons for this, but among them are latency (the amount of time it takes a signal to go from your office to the cloud server and back) and special requirements (doors, intercoms, paging, etc.). Neither of these alone is a disqualifier, however, a combination of them or the cost of overcoming them to go to a cloud phone system often can outweigh the benefits.
Most businesses that sell phone systems only sell one flavor: cloud only. Why? Because it’s cheap to deploy and profitable. It’s also very easy to mess up and deploy to the wrong client, but it’s easy to pick up and refund the client since there’s very little “skin in the game” on anyone’s part. The downside is, even if the original amounts are refunded, a business is often left crippled during the transitions between providers.
One final thought on Cloud VoIP is user experience. If inter-office paging and calling happens often, the latency I mentioned above can be intolerable to the end-user. Be sure to do appropriate due-diligence on the solution you evaluate and come to the table armed with questions that are significant to how you use your phones. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for a demo or “proof-of-concept”. These can often be done at little to no cost relative to the project size.
The Bottom Line
Flexibility is key here. End-user experience is a close second. Don’t adopt new technologies solely because they are new; take the time to find out specifically how they will improve business and your clients’ experience in interacting with your company. If those areas are not improved, buyer beware!
Finally, team up with a trusted advisor to help you navigate these areas. A trusted advisor should be able to bring options to the table and when they can’t, they should be able to articulate why. Don’t get caught doing business with a hammer salesman when all you needed was a light tap.