The “cloud” — or Internet-based services — can be a great solution for your small business. But keep these three factors in mind when making the switch. (STR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Without question, “the cloud” is today’s big thing in business IT and communications.

Businesses have been moving their e-mail and other services to cloud service to reduce costs, improve features and gain greater security, reliability and mobility over managing them on premise.

Many of these businesses, unfortunately, are moving their critical IT services to the cloud without fully understanding the key differences between the three distinct types of cloud service providers,  and they could be putting their companies at risk.

 Most people are familiar with the personal cloud, which allows consumers to listen to music, chat with friends and share photos, and is generally free or “freemium.” Examples include Google, Dropbox, Apple’s iCloud and Flickr. While they are great offerings, consumer cloud services are by definition not designed for businesses, as they lack key elements that businesses need, including security and control. 

Also getting a lot of attention is the developer cloud. Services and platforms such as Amazon Web Services and Windows Azure are two leaders in this category.  These are powerful platforms that developers and engineers can leverage to create sophisticated cloud-based applications and services, but they’re well known for being complex and focused on providing infrastructure, rather than complete solutions.

Finally, there is the business cloud, which provides secure, business-grade and often integrated solutions built specifically around the needs of the small and medium business. Examples include Salesforce, Microsoft Office 365 and Intermedia.

When deciding between each of these clouds, owners of small and medium businesses must understand what the business cloud can do relative to the status quo of more consumer-focused and developer offerings. There is no practical reason for small businesses to manage their own IT when they can get cloud services that offer fewer hassles, better service and support, higher reliability and greater security at lower and more predictable costs.


Migration, security, support

Three factors are critical to the success of small businesses as they move their IT services into the cloud:  a clean and seamless migration; proper security and control; and quality 24-7 expert support.

Selecting a cloud services provider that can handle the migration of your business data for you is critical to your initial success. Unlike the consumer cloud, the business cloud relies on the ability of a service provider to move your data from your current environment (typically on premise servers) to the cloud. Business services are notoriously complex, and good cloud services providers often have teams of experts who specialize in this process, and a select few even offer these services for free. You certainly can’t afford to have hiccups in your business critical services (such as e-mail), so carefully choose a provider that specializes in data migration.

 While security is often a key roadblock in the decision around cloud adoption for small businesses, many of the larger cloud service providers have invested heavily in their security teams, processes and technology. When you consider that most small and medium businesses struggle to configure a firewall, the advantage of moving to a service managed by world-class security experts becomes apparent.

With the average cost of a data breach approaching $7.2 million (according to a recent study conducted by the Ponemon Institute), small and medium businesses can no longer afford to leave their data vulnerable on locally managed systems. Just as important is the backing up of PC and Outlook files and folders. What happens to your business if a hard drive crashes; or coffee is spilled on a laptop; or a laptop, smartphone or iPad is stolen?

Data loss can occur at anytime. Managing PC and Outlook backup for files and folders on-premise is a complex and challenging process. Businesses should look for providers that offer a solution that is accessible, reliable and that can recover a loss quickly — without disrupting the day-to-day workflow of employees.

 Not to be underestimated, support will play a key role in your ability to realize the efficiencies promised by moving to the cloud. In the business cloud, 24-7 support, quick answer times and quality experts are not just provided, they’re expected. If you’re choosing a provider that can’t help you quickly solve issues, you’re putting your entire business at risk.

 With e-mail as the most widely used communication tool in business (a typical user spends 134 minutes during each workday on it, according to Osterman Research), ease of migration, top-notch security and reliable support are the first things your company should look for in a business-grade provider.


Cost effective, not free

Osterman Research found that companies can save more than 50 percent in IT costs when deploying cloud resources versus on-premise, all while gaining significant other benefits. While you’re not likely to find a business-grade cloud offering for free, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding one that can deliver real ROI and minimize your overall risk.

 Small and medium businesses should tread cautiously around “freemium” services. Offerings that deliver a product or service for free, while charging a premium for more advanced features or functionality, are generally missing the critical business-grade elements, such as support, migration, control and security. Businesses deploying these services often end up spending significant amounts of time and energy testing these solutions, and usually end up moving away from them. True business-grade services won’t be a “one size fits all.”

As you evaluate your business’s current cloud providers, or evaluate moving more services to the cloud, make sure your cloud services provider is truly business grade.

 Michael Gold is president of Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Intermedia, which provides broad and integrated suite of cloud services to small and medium businesses and is the world’s largest hosted Exchange provider.