December 6, 2009
At our company we have gone through a transition of sorts that started as an experiment, but turned out to benefit us in big ways. First, a little background: we provide various internet-related technical services like Web site design, hosting, and some consulting. But more interesting is a service we offer that allows companies to share files, access e-mail, coordinate calendars, and manage contacts from anywhere, right through the internet. In our sales pitch, we tell potential clients that if they use our service, they may be able to get rid of their internal server altogether.
We thought about this claim, that our service could potentially allow a company to get rid of its server, and realized two things. First, we realized it’s true; that depending on your operations, many companies don’t really need a server. The only reason a company needs a server is if they have a critical software application that has no online alternative or substitute, or if they have a particular security issue that cannot be met through online services.
The second thing we realized is that technology has advanced so much during the past few years that many of the services we use that normally chain us to our desks or to our offices now have online alternatives that are reliable, easy-to-use, and often more cost-effective. Think about it; if something promises to lower your costs and, at the same time, increase flexibility and productivity, it’s got to be worth a look. We experimented with a few, liked them, and now we are saving money and have more flexibility than we did before.
In addition to that, consider safety and security. With traditional software, employees save data on their laptops, USB drives, or portable hard drives. It’s not as safe as it sounds. Laptops are stolen, computers are rarely backed up properly, and it’s unlikely everyone’s machines are up to date with the latest security patches and updates. Most reputable online service providers store all the data on secure, always-updated, backed-up daily enterprise-class servers in state-of-the-art, highly-secure data centers.
A key advantage to online services is that all your data is centralized and accessible over the web from any computer at any time. You can’t leave something on the wrong computer since everything is stored in one place on the Web. You can get to it from anywhere, and if you can do that, that means you can work from home, work, or on the road; anywhere with internet access.
Let’s take a look at what’s possible. What online services are worth exploring?
The first and most obvious are e-mail, spam filtering, and Web hosting. Usually all three are bundled together, but not necessarily so. You have the option of hosting your own e-mail in-house, managing your own spam, and hosting your own Web site. But considering that fighting spammers is a full-time job, and since these services are really cheap, it makes sense to have this hosted for you through an online service.
The most drastic online service we adopted recently is a virtual phone system. These come in several flavors. At the low end, you can get a basic inbound 800 number that is very cheap ($20 month + minor per call charges). On the higher end, you can also have direct dial numbers all routed through internet-based phones. This technology uses Voice Over IP (or VOIP), which means the phone works through the internet rather than a traditional phone line.
In the past there were valid concerns over the sound quality of VOIP services, but with faster internet connections (like cable modems or T1’s) as well as the capability to “dedicate” bandwidth to the phone; those concerns have mostly been addressed.
The last type of online service I want to mention is Customer Relationship Management. There are many, many versions of online CRM packages. A lot of them include industry-specific details and functionality. Most often, they include a database that allows you to track customer information, sales information, customer service issues, scheduling, and reporting of some sort.
The possibilities seem virtually endless. Online services promise a lot of benefits, and some of them are very intriguing. But, please, before you decide to adopt an online service, be sure to do some due diligence on their security as well as the details of the service contract. In particular, make sure that the contract specifically states that you own any data you enter into the system, and that it is easy to get your data out of the system, if necessary. Also, pay attention to their uptime guarantees, their backup procedures, and their disaster recovery plan.