Since the emergence of the Internet in early 90s, experts have been predicting the use of software applications over the Internet, whereby users did not need to install any applications software and servers on their own premises. Instead, they could simply connect to the Internet and access their applications and data from their service providers, much like the telephone, where all the telephony networks and infrastructure are installed at the telephone company’s operating centers and users only need to buy a phone to use all the telephone-related services they need.
The concept was particularly appealing for small and medium businesses (SMBs) that did not have adequate financial and technical resources or the scale of operations required to install the required IT infrastructure in-house. Indeed, up until recently, many SMBs found themselves at a disadvantage in competing with large companies, which implemented the new (and often resource-intensive) complex applications to improve their productivity, develop new products and services better and faster, and provide superior customer service.
In recent years, however, the playing field has begun to be leveled with the emergence of cloud computing, whereby the servers, applications and networking equipment are installed at an external hosting company and users can use the applications they need using any device they want (e.g. desktops, notebooks, tablets, smartphones) without incurring any large capital expenditures upfront, paying for the use of applications on an as-needed basis. One of the most famous examples of such cloud computing is the CRM application offered by Salesforce.com, the single largest pure play cloud computing vendor in the world. While large companies spent tens, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to install, maintain and periodically upgrade their CRM applications from large vendors like Oracle and SAP to serve their customers, SMBs can now acquire similar capabilities by paying a few dollars a month per user.
Several changes have taken place in recent years and now the stars seem to be finally all aligned for a rapid and sustained growth of cloud-based solutions. Enter cloud computing accelerated by mobility and the work from anywhere and anytime culture.
The New Economy and Increased Demand from SMBs
The dramatic shock to the global economy in 2008 had a multifold effect on the decision making of businesses. With sharp drop in revenues and profits and decreased availability of credit, SMBs found themselves starved of the capital they required to invest for in-house IT infrastructures to meet their increasing IT needs to improve their employee productivity, develop new products and services and provide higher levels of customer service to compete in the globalized economy. With the global economy unlikely to recover anytime soon and resume its long-term growth of earlier years, SMBs have become quite averse to make large capital investments and prefer to pay on an as-needed basis. Cloud computing meets this need of the SMBs by converting capital expenditures into operating expenditures.
Increased Employee Mobility
A second factor that has increased the demand for cloud solutions is the increasing mobility among SMB employees and their need to be able to access their applications anytime from anywhere using any device (e.g. desktops, notebooks, tablets, and smartphones). Cloud solution providers have developed new capabilities in recent years that allow SMB employees to do precisely that. Applications and data can be accessed over fixed and wireless connections and they adapt the data views automatically depending upon the access devices being used by the mobile workers.
Cloud computing is also being enabled by the fact that new applications are increasingly being developed with Internet delivery in mind rather than just adapting the older client-server technologies for the Internet. A key element of this new trend is the evolution of integration platforms that allow users to integrate the web-based and on-premise applications to work together and exchange data on an as-needed basis automatically. Over time, this will allow SMBs to have multiple applications that work seamlessly like a single system without SMBs having to be concerned about transferring the data accurately and quickly for use by different applications thereby reducing their needs for internal IT skills.
Cloud computing is also becoming more economical by the increasing use of virtualization, which allows use of fewer servers to serve the needs of multiple SMB customers. Virtualization also allows for greater security, backup & recovery and higher levels of IT availability, which have become increasingly important for SMBs with their increasing reliance on IT.
Development of the Cloud Computing Ecosystem
Finally, a more complete ecosystem is evolving, consisting of cloud solution developers (e.g. Salesforce.com, Netsuite, Taleo, Concur) , infrastructure providers (e.g. Dell, IBM, Cisco, HP, etc.), hosting companies (e.g. Equinix, Savvis, Rackspace) as well as local channel partners that collectively have the capability to develop and deliver cloud-based solutions to the large number of SMBs spread out all over their markets. Furthermore, collectively they have the financial & technical resources and credibility to convince SMBs to adopt the new technologies.