Are you ready for the cloud revolution?

I consider myself truly told off.  Last month, I missed two Sunday blog posts in a row and I received more direct mail during that period than I have the whole time I’ve been writing blogs, all demanding why I hadn’t kept to my Sunday morning posts!

I did offer my excuses that things had been particularly busy of late with two major events, one of which is a company rebrand gala scheduled to take place next month, as well as a murder mystery which took place last week (I don’t think the balloons have even fully deflated yet!). However, I don’t think the Sunday regulars were impressed with my explanations.

And I don’t blame them, really. I’m just humbled by the fact that these regulars actually took the time to notice I was gone. Thanks! 🙂

That said, acquiring an established company with an established brand and improving on this is no mean feat,   especially, when you’re embarking on a complete overhaul not only of the business’s processes (how we provide service to our customers) but also of the model (how we do business). A subject that we, as a company, are all too familiar with since it’s what we actually do; our consultancy service goes into organisations that are looking to implement or upgrade their business systems but we don’t just sell them software, we actually conduct in depth business analysis and scoping to ensure we have fully understood how the company works so that we may better recommend methodologies (now there’s a truly corporate word) that improve business processes, enabling them to work more efficiently. We then put our business software at the heart of those methodologies, saving them time, streamlining their operations, providing full visibility over all areas of the business and (ultimately) saving them a lot of money.

So, the irony wasn’t missed when we had to turn the spotlight of this expertise on ourselves to understand what has and has not worked over the past two decades not only to ensure that we work better as a company but also to ensure that our existing customers and future prospects receive the best possible service from us.

Martin Luther King famously said, “I have a dream”.  And so did I. It began over 2 years ago when I first subscribed to the belief that the future of business was in the cloud. I recommended this to the board of my employers and yet, whilst I commanded a senior role as well as a place on the board, ultimately, the business was not mine. Alas, the board of directors did not share the same passion of my beliefs; the adoption of cloud based technology was not fully embraced and thus allowed to dissipate.

Fast forward two years to January 2012 and my acquisition of the company for whom I had worked for the best part of 13 years. The time had finally come for me to implement my business strategy; streamline the business and reduce overheads by selling up the office in Cambridge and shedding a raft of costs, including a £10,000+ (the equivalent of half of a junior’s salary) rate bill to Cambridgeshire County Council. To me, it was nonsensical of the business to pay out that kind of money just for the luxury (for want of a better expression) of having offices in the heart of Cambridge, the  reaching of which (as many commuters will sympathise) proved to be a stressful, time consuming daily chore, and  a non-productive waste of my personal life.  It grated me over the years that, despite the fact that we rarely entertained clients our offices (as we normally visit them on site) we retained such an expensive commodity.  I vowed to change this although it was a risky strategy, to do so would mean selling up our offices, our physical location, our own servers, our own network, our desktop telephones, lighting and heating and everything else that tangibly ‘makes’ a business and relocate this elsewhere. A solution had to be found since a rare offer was made for our office and naturally could not be passed up. The clock was set. We had one month to relocate the business, the question was where?

Telecommunications
Today, thanks to email, it is feasible that the heart of everyday business will continue to beat even if your remove those veins otherwise known as telephone lines. However, when you have over a hundred customers who have contracted with you to receive helpdesk services for assistance when using the products that you have implemented, retaining telecommunications was critical to our business. So we started researching VOIP (Voice Over IP or internet) solutions. We knew the technology existed because SKYPE had been successfully refining it for many years now. Surely, there was a business equivalent, maybe even SKYPE itself. We looked into this but SKYPE quality (to external lines) wasn’t so refined and it was also incapable of providing a flexible telephone exchange system (so that we could patch calls through to each other).

There was only one other solution, to retain our servers, locate them somewhere and attach to these a ‘box’ with soft phone option; effectively, a computer screen representation of a desk phone. Calls would be routed to the box, through our server, over the internet to our laptops. There, via headsets, we would be able to answer calls. This was a major technological leap forward as it meant that consultants would be able to answer calls wherever their location. This meant that our business would no longer affected by acts of nature, such as bad weather (where technicians couldn’t get to the office to physically man the helpline). Although, it did mean that we’d need to retain a server, locate this somewhere and plumb it into a decent internet connection. But where? Rent a location? My shed? Sounds ludicrous now but we did think about it and we even discussed the logistical nightmare of having BT run broadband lines to the shed, along with power supply, etcetera but we needn’t had bothered because we were only a few days into the trial of the new ‘soft phones’ when we came to realise that it was possibly this worse telecommunications disaster in the history of the company. The quality of some of the calls was dire and when it wasn’t dire, it was dead; the line kept dropping!  Cue my first customer service nightmare. I’d set out to provide a better service to our customers and instead I’d made it worse. The first stage of my dream was rapidly becoming the company’s nightmare. We needed a solution, and fast.

Infrastructure
At the heart of any business is its IT infrastructure, that is the server or servers upon which all business software is loaded. E.g. ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) software that enables businesses to manage stock, customer and supplier accounts, raise quotes, delivery notes, invoices and credit notes, as well as run management reports  detailing how well (or badly) the business is doing.  Servers are also required for email coming into the building. The ISP (Internet Service Provider) forwards email to the server and the server (normally via a product known as Microsoft Exchange) forwards the email to the relevant employee’s computer through a designated email address. Then there’s also file storage. Many employees save files to the main server so that they may be accessed by other employees (or they just email them backwards and forward (creating a version control hazard).

We needed servers to manage all of the above and more. Worse still, when I acquired the company, it had already suffered several years (in technological terms) of underinvestment. Basically, the servers would need to be replaced and I was being quoted, by my technical boffins, hardware requirements that wouldn’t leave much change from £5,000. That’s right, for ‘decent’ servers that were future proof (which generally means 3 to 4 years in the IT world).  This coupled with other network configurations and peripherals were nudging the total bill closer to £10,000. Add to that the fact that I still needed somewhere to house these things and, whichever place I chose, it’d need a decent power supply, internet connection, and it would also need to be ‘maintained’ by a member of our technical team. It was challenge number 2 of the move and we just had days to go. I had to make a decision, and quickly.

It was at this stage that I was starting to wonder if I had bitten off more than I could chew, acquiring the company, moving out of the offices, attempting to make radical changes to our infrastructure and generally changing institutionally ingrained practices of years in just days.

However, the more the challenge, the more my resolve to prevail without a significant risk to the business, although I knew I was already on shaky ground there, the issue of the phone system still hadn’t been resolved.

And that’s when it occurred to me. I wasn’t fully engaged in the process. I had this pipe dream about a cloud enabled company but even I, after the acquisition, wasn’t fully committed to the process. It appeared that I liked ‘the idea’ of the cloud but I was still considering maintaining our own servers and seeking new premises. No, this wasn’t the dream, and it was then that I resolved it should be all or nothing, and that’s’ when the decision was made to migrate the whole business to the cloud.

So, what is ‘the cloud’?
The conventional business works on the basic premise of an office, a server/s (for email, files and business software), a network infrastructure (to connect to the server) and client machines (PCs or Laptops) that act as interfaces to the server/s, and, of course, a phone system. ‘The cloud’ provides all this but as a service, not unlike everyday utilities, such as power and water. Think of the cloud as a multi-storey apartment complex. Firstly, you rent an empty apartment and then you add utilities, such as lighting, heating, cable television. You might even add housekeeping, periodical refurbishments and so on.

And so we became a cloud enabled company
We didn’t purchase or lease new premises. Why commute when, by the power of the cloud, we can all work from the comfort of our homes or indeed from anywhere in the world via a laptop or mobile device with internet connection.  There’s no more commuting to the centre of Cambridge, instead I’m using those saved hours productively either on my cross trainer or working.

I saved myself the £10,000 and reinvested it
We didn’t spend a penny on new servers and nor did we shell out hundreds on new software (admittedly, we had most of that anyway). We rented a server cloud service and on that we loaded our own ERP software, we copied over our data and, within hours, our finance and helpdesk system was up and running once more. Now, with our wireless laptops or device, we can log in from anywhere in the house or in the world to run our business.

No servers needed to manage our email
To our cloud service, we added email exchange and connected this to Microsoft Outlook on our laptops but, since the email service is in the cloud, we can log on from any web browser or device with internet access from anywhere in the world. Our email is always there, always backed up and available to us.

Our documents have gone digital and are much easier to store and find
We added document storage to our cloud service. Scanned our entire collection of lever arch folders, well we didn’t waste time doing that, we contracted a company to do it for us at minimal cost. Now, all of our documents are digitally stored and backed up in the safety of the cloud. Now, any document I need is just one click away and, again, available from any web browser or mobile device. I can download and share documents in seconds. Indeed, my accountant now doesn’t even have to leave his office to view ‘the books’, he just logs in from the comfort of his own home or the office (after commuting there).

I also use a personal cloud based subscription service to back up my personal folders and my entire music and photo collection. Gigabytes worth of data safely backed up to the cloud. And it is safe because they used ‘redundant’ server technology to copy the images of the server’s contents which means if one fails, it’s simply resurrected elsewhere.

The blood that moves the body
So what about the all-important telephone system?  Easy, we just sourced a company specialising in ‘managed’ VOIP technology which means their whole infrastructure is based on telephony services; they’re able to monitor the quality of all of our calls and, where necessary, take action.  All calls are now routed through the cloud and automatically to our laptops or mobile phones. Moreover, with all the money we saved in changing our business practice and dispensing with our own infrastructure, I decided to splash out on some decent Bluetooth headsets which means we no longer have to sit at our laptops to take calls, we’re free to pace (much to my delight) around the room during lengthy telephone calls, and guess what, the quality is excellent.

So that’s my story.  As you can see, it’s been quite a journey and will give you a flavour as to why I may have missed a few Sunday posts and why I smile each time I notice somebody else finally joining the cloud revolution.

It just goes to show that dreams can indeed come true. When I originally had the idea of a cloud enabled company, I never thought it would be my own yet, by default, two years ago, I had the idea to shave thousands of pounds off the overheads of my own company and avoided thousands more on potential setup fees.

Is fate something that we make? You decide.

If you or somebody you know would like to know more about how cloud technology can help them or their business, visit www.cga.co.uk/getintothecloud.

3 Comments

  1. harberk says:

    I understood everything u wrote about as that was my course that I went on for a week,(datacommunications) very interesting, now I also use Cloud technology… Good read as always x

  2. Tammy says:

    Even I understood all of that! :O) It’s always good to read about how things are coming along. I’m always in awe of you – Well done…x

  3. Veronica ~ says:

    Good article Tony, I’ve read more than a few as I was interested for when I start my business down the line and this was a much easier read than most. Glad business is running smoothly for you now. What an amazing accomplishment!

%d bloggers like this: