What SMEs should know when moving to the cloud

SMEs have as much to ponder as large companies do when considering cloud migrations. Even those on the tiniest budgets would be unwise to become preoccupied by providers’ headline prices

For several years, Peter Ambrose, MD of The Partnership, contemplated moving the 20 million files held by his business to the cloud.

Every evening, the 80 employees at the property law firm’s offices in London and Guildford would back up the day’s conveyancing documents, searches, emails and other correspondence to a huge bank of on-site servers.

“Each case generates about 160 documents,” he explains. “Every time we created a document, we stored it. We needed to back up our data and keep it safe because it is incredibly sensitive information that includes bank details and identity checks. My number-one concern – which literally kept me awake at night for years – was whether that data was vulnerable to a ransomware attack.”

Finally, after months of research and planning, in November last year, The Partnership migrated all archived and live case data to a cloud service. 

“It was scary – I’ll make no bones about it,” Ambrose admits. “Although we had done all the tests, until you’ve actually moved this huge amount of data, you worry about whether it’s going to work.”

The Partnership is one of a growing number of SMEs that have successfully moved their operations to the cloud. Another is Dakota Hotels. The luxury accommodation group needed a cost-effective cloud-based software solution that could be scaled up as the business grew. It also wanted to harness the potential of the cloud to help with the HR challenges that the pandemic had forced upon the hospitality sector. As an additional benefit, the company gained greater insights into its costs and commercial opportunities. 

“The time savings we’ve accrued by moving to the cloud have freed people up to focus on innovation,” says the company’s operations director, Andrew Ovenstone. “This has enabled our finance professionals to move away from number-crunching and become value creators.” 

For businesses using simpler cloud applications, the primary driver should be functionality, followed by security, compliance, scalability and cost

All hotels under the Dakota brand compile their own profit-and-loss statements, which meant that a cloud-based solution would be an ideal solution to support multiple data entries. This has granted each hotel the autonomy to input data without compromising consolidation, reporting or intelligence at group level. 

For SMEs, there are several key factors to consider when contemplating a move to the cloud. The first of these is the issue of cost versus opportunity. 

“Cost matters for SMEs, but you also need to think about what moving to the cloud can enable for your business,” says Dr Antonio Weiss, senior partner at The PSC, a consultancy that helps providers of public services with their digital transformations.

“If you hold data and applications on your premises, you probably run quite a restricted service,” says Weiss, whose book, The Practical Guide to Digital Transformation, was published in February. “The cloud enables huge possibilities in terms of data processing and analysis. It also offers better security and improved performance for your customers and staff. So, while you should aim to keep costs low in any cloud transition, you need to focus on how it can make your business better and to ensure that you have a plan to capitalise on this.”

The second key factor to consider is flexibility. One of the challenges for The Partnership was to find a cloud provider that would store and register multiple versions of documents rather than providing a static record. This enables employees to return to the material and update it where necessary.

“We looked at Microsoft and Amazon Web Services, but found that they wouldn’t work for us,” Ambrose says. “We needed a system that could cope better with changeable data, which is why we partnered with Egnyte.”

The third consideration is the level of functionality required in the short, medium and long term. SMEs need to be realistic about what level of service and availability they are going to need, says Mairead O’Connor, executive for cloud engineering at AND Digital.

“Public cloud platforms enable SMEs to occupy the same playing field as big, cash-rich corporations,” she says. “All companies have been granted access to technology such as machine-learning tools. Only recently, functionality of this sort would have been out of reach to all but the most well-funded multinationals.” 

But firms should not adopt such tech without first considering their strategic direction. Cloud transformations are complex and, unless they are executed properly, they can lead to serious operational inefficiencies and data leakage. Before parting with any money, CIOs and CEOs should take a step back and review their current business model.

Ash Finnegan digital transformation officer at Conga, an enterprise cloud computing and data company, observes that a lot of SMEs have been rushing their digital transformations.

“Regardless of their size, organisations need to complete a thorough assessment and understand where they are with regard to their digital maturity today,” she says. “This involves analysing their current operational model, identifying strengths and weaknesses, and establishing how they can better connect with their customers and serve them.”

The fourth key factor to consider is the likely level of service and tech support required. Despite the hurdles involved, migration to the cloud can yield many benefits, as The Partnership and Dakota Hotels have discovered. 

Using subscription cloud services eliminates the need to maintain and upgrade technology, which can be costly and time-consuming processes for SMEs. But it is vital to establish exactly how much support you expect from your cloud provider and to be realistic about your own IT abilities.

The provision of adequate tech support is key for smaller firms, stresses Charlie Dawson, marketing and channel director at cloud provider Imscad Global. “There will be some SMEs with the resources to support their own cloud migration and provide ongoing support, but they should ensure that the provider they choose offers a good level of support, including the ability to have issues resolved using in-person communication,” he says. 

Security is the fifth major consideration. For Ambrose, his decision to use a cloud service was prompted by the ongoing challenge of protecting The Partnership’s in-house servers. Yet price and performance are often the first considerations for many SMEs, even though a loss of data could have catastrophic ramifications. 

While factors such as affordability and capacity are clearly fundamental, most cloud providers offer only the most basic security features, especially at the budget end of the spectrum, warns Trevor Morgan, product manager at data security specialist Comforte.

“This simply won’t be enough if your highly sensitive information – on your firm’s finances, intellectual property and customers – is destined for the cloud,” he says.

Concerns about regulatory compliance will come to the fore here, especially for businesses in industries that require very strict risk controls – for example, defence, healthcare and financial services. 

“Each particular market will present different constraints, but companies operating in the same space may still have different appetites for risk,” notes Dean Clark, chief technology officer at digital consultancy GFT Group. “The ideal balance between security, compliance, cost and functionality will depend on the individual organisation.”

SMEs should determine whether the solution they are considering has the right level of security in place. Two-factor authentication (2FA) should be a minimum standard, according to Lee Wrall, director at managed services provider Everything Tech.

“We’re seeing that some cloud solutions are putting 2FA into their future roadmap, but we believe it should already be there,” he says. “For more robust infrastructure requirements, we’d recommend opting for bigger, more established solutions such as Microsoft or Amazon, as these provide features such as security, compliance and the ability to scale up as standard. For businesses using simpler cloud applications, the primary driver should be functionality, followed by security, compliance, scalability and cost.”

Database requirements constitute the sixth and final key consideration. In the cloud, storage capacity is one of the measures that service providers use to charge for their offering. If you do not have significant volumes of data, the cloud may not provide value for money.

“For any company that needs some level of scale and availability, the cloud is usually the best option,” says Andrew Oliver, senior director of product marketing at MariaDB, an open-source database provider. “For a very small database with merely internal users, hosting in house might be more cost-effective if the company has the time and expertise – and a careful plan for off-site backup.”