While people have been talking about "the cloud" for years, a common question we get from many business owners remains, "What's the best way to get my company onto the cloud?" In many cases, that question is followed by a hesitant, "And can you explain what the cloud is?"
These are understandable questions to ask, since "the cloud" is a marketing buzzword that means different things to different people and is used by a variety of companies to describe all manner of products and services.
In a nutshell, the cloud is a way to refer to software and data that resides on servers that are accessed over the Internet. If you're accessing something that's not on your own computer or on a server in your office, it's on the cloud. You can think of the web as the first mainstream cloud service. These days, most email services are cloud-based, as well.
So there's nothing exotic about the cloud.
What's changed over the past few years is that many applications we consider traditional software are now also available as cloud services, such as Microsoft Office. With Office 365, for example, instead of buying a box of software and installing it on your computer, you connect to Microsoft's web site, and using a variety of techniques behind the scenes, Microsoft delivers Word, Excel, and PowerPoint over the Internet.
Most cloud services are rented on a subscription basis, instead of purchased outright, as was the case with traditional software. A benefit is that with a cloud subscription, you typically don't have to worry about paying for new versions or manually installing software updates– all of that is part of the deal. A downside is that purchases which were previously made once every few years now become monthly expenses (though smaller).
Like it or not, the cloud model– also referred to as "Software As A Service", or SAAS– is here to stay. The benefits and convenience of putting software companies, instead of users, in control of managing software are just too big to ignore. And the monthly recurring revenue that cloud subscriptions provide to software companies is impossible for them to turn away from.
Unless your office situation does not provide a basic Internet connection, or if you work in an industry that has detailed requirements around customer data protection (such as healthcare), using cloud services for most of your IT functions has become a best practice.
While there are nuances and subtleties between services that are worth taking into consideration before making long-term decisions, we're going to cut right to the chase and share our recommendations for the cloud services that we think are best of breed for most companies' needs. Doing this is in some respects like making a list of "the best car, clothes, and food you can buy"– there's no one-size-fits-all answer. But in the spirit of making technology as simple as we can, we're happy to go out on a limb.
Best cloud business suite: Microsoft Office 365
The two big players in this space are Microsoft, with Office 365, and Google, with Google Apps for Work. While both are capable and offer similar basic functionality, for most businesses that rely on Microsoft Word and Excel as standard business tools the clear winner is Office 365.
Office 365 offers cloud-based email, calendar, and contact services, as well as a number of additional collaboration and communication tools such as Skype. But the cherry on top is that with most editions of Office 365, Microsoft includes access to its full suite of Office software as part of the package. So in addition to getting the communication services you need from a business suite, an Office 365 subscription will also give you Word, Excel, PowerPoint (and more) for all of your computers and tablets.
If your company doesn't use an Office-centric workflow, this benefit won't mean much to you, but even in 2015, we find that virtually every business lives and breathes Microsoft Word and Excel files. With Office 365, you'll kill many birds with one stone.
Best cloud file storage solution: Dropbox
Storing files and data in a centralized location is a critical piece of any cloud workflow, and while there are a variety of services to choose from, our favorite is Dropbox.
Dropbox has been around for ages (in Internet years), and it's supported by virtually every program and app that can plug into cloud services. It's easy to use, offers the ability to store files locally as well as online-only, and works on every major platform, including the Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, Android, and Windows Phone.
Dropbox made cloud file storage a household name, and it retains the crown as the best solution out there for most people.
An important sidebar: Microsoft Office 365 includes it own cloud file storage service, called OneDrive, which you'll get if you go with our recommended cloud business suite above. OneDrive is fine and works well with Microsoft software, but we still like Dropbox better– and Microsoft likes it too, offering support for Dropbox right alongside OneDrive in its Office applications. So if you go with Office 365, give OneDrive a try, but if you're looking for the overall best cloud storage solution, you can't beat Dropbox.
Best cloud backup solution: CrashPlan
Cloud backup services are similar to cloud file storage services in that they store files online, but their intended use is quite different. While a service like Dropbox is designed to make it easy to access your files from anywhere, cloud backup solutions are intended to safeguard your computer or server data for recovery in the event of a crash or accidental deletion.
Cloud file services don't act as safety nets that protect all of your data over time– if you delete a file from Dropbox, for example, it's gone. A cloud backup service, on the other hand, will save copies of files that you delete and change over time, making them useful tools to give you a historical record and peace of mind.
The most well-known cloud backup service is Carbonite, but our favorite is CrashPlan, which you can think of as Avis to Carbonite's Hertz. Carbonite may have the market share, but CrashPlan tries harder, offering more features and flexibility for lower prices. As a result, CrashPlan gets our nod for best cloud backup solution. (If you're too young to get the "tries harder" reference, consider us jealous.)
Best cloud accounting solution: QuickBooks
For years, QuickBooks has been the Microsoft Office of small business accounting packages: the de facto standard.
With the move to cloud services, newer solutions like FreshBooks have emerged, and for a while, QuickBooks' online offering lagged behind. But QuickBooks has caught up, and the power of the QuickBooks legacy is hard to pass up.
In our experience, virtually every accountant and financial service provider remains on the QuickBooks bandwagon, and for this reason alone, QuickBooks gets our recommendation as the best cloud accounting solution for most small businesses. Being on the same page with the accounting world is simply too important to pass up.
While "the cloud" can seem like a daunting topic that raises more questions than answers, for most companies, we can sum it up like this: Office 365, Dropbox, CrashPlan, and QuickBooks.
With these services, you'll be using best-of-breed, industry-standard tools that will work on all of your computers and devices, and will ensure you're best set up to tap into other services and share information with partners, vendors, and customers as easily as possible.
When it comes to the cloud, while we have our overall favorites, assessing a company's unique needs and making specific recommendations is something we do all the time. If you would like more information or would like to discuss this with us in more detail, please drop us a line or give us a call at 800.728.8208.