Cloud for Small Business

cloud for small businessMy dad is in his retirement years, but he’s one of those guys who will never really retire. Once part of the engineering team that built the communications system for the Expo line for Vancouver’s SkyTrain in the mid-80’s among other things, he now works as an IT consultant for a small computer store in a rural Ontario town.

One of his clients had some specific technology needs and my dad called me up for a consult. His client, a family-run small business, had 2 needs:

  1. A shared scheduling calendar that could be accessed out in the field (literally!) with cell access, as well as in the office.
  2. A place to store large video files that could be accessed as needed.

This is not a company that wants to spend a large upfront sum on IT infrastructure. They don’t want to have to manage or maintain server hardware. They just want to consume a service that fits their need for a reasonable cost. Hmmm…sounds like a lot of businesses I know!

For the first requirement, both Office 365 and Windows Live would fit the bill as well as do more if needed. These are software as a service (SaaS) offerings that reside in Microsoft’s cloud. We (Microsoft) take care of the hardware, operating systems and applications that run the services. All the company needs to do is set them up and use them (or have someone like my dad set them up and give them guidance).

Office 365 has a guaranteed 99.9% uptime and technical support so it requires a paid subscription. If, in the future, the company wanted to share calendars or a global address list, set up team sites, etc., they would just increase their subscription to include the additional users and services needed. Windows Live is a free consumer option without a service level agreement or support calls. It would fit their immediate requirements plus give them access to Office Web Apps and Skydrive. 

For the second requirement, both Windows Azure storage account and Skydrive are options, depending on the file size, high availability requirements, total storage needs, etc. These are again both SaaS options in this scenario, but Windows Azure also provides PaaS (platform as a service) so that organizations can build their own cloud solutions in Azure to be consumed as SaaS offerings by their customers, partners or employees.

The Azure storage account is a flexible option with a 99.95% monthly SLA where you pay only for what you use, up to 100TB of blob (binary large object), table and queue data (in this case, my dad’s client only has blob data storage requirements) for each storage account. You can have up to 5 storage accounts for each Azure subscription. While all the storage is redundant by default, the business can choose geo redundant storage for slightly more cost than locally redundant storage (i.e. $13.88/month for 100 GB vs. $10.33/month for 100 GB). Skydrive is the consumer option which provides 7GB for free and options to purchase an additional 20 GB, 50 GB or 100 GB for an annual cost of $10, $25 or $50. It supports up file sizes up to 2GB.

My dad’s client ended up using Office 365 for their shared calendaring solution and are currently evaluating options for their storage needs. But their story and requirements are far from unique.

This is just one example of how a small business can use cloud services. For IT folk who support small businesses, knowledge of cloud services and the range of choices available is one more useful tool in the ol’ tool belt.


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