Nimbleness, affordability and staying ahead of the pack are all characteristics that any business aspires to in the modern world.

There is one area of technology that encapsulates them more than any other. Mention ‘the cloud’ to somebody casually and you might receive a knowing nod – followed by a frown as they contemplate just what it actually is.

Not only is it powering many of the consumer platforms we use today – it is also enabling businesses to grow at scale in a way that was unheard of in the past.

One such firm is Manchester-based AccessPay. The automated payments provider was one of the first cloud-based financial organisations to hit the market and its rapid growth since 2012 is all down to its cloud infrastructure, says product director James Higgins.

The FinTech firm’s software enables organisations to automate payment transactions through one platform.

“The cloud has allowed us to stay ahead of the market in terms of compliance,” says Higgins. “All of our customers are on the same version of AccessPay, which is constantly updated and upgraded, and we can constantly introduce new features and products.”

The technology is vital for Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) providers such as AccessPay. For example, when GDPR came into force, it allowed all upgrades to be made in one go – and for all customers.

Then there’s the lower cost element, which can be passed on to customers.

“Without the cloud we’d be slowed down as a business because we’d have to spend so much time trying to upgrade all customers from a legal requirement perspective and because we’d be focused on that all the time we wouldn’t be able to focus on the innovation side of the business and bringing new products to market,” Higgins adds.

“We’ve been able to attract market share at a far greater pace than our competitors.”

As well as offering benefits to customers who use the platform, there are benefits within the running of the business, too. “We have a sales team that’s out in the field talking to customers on a daily basis so we’re able to demonstrate our product wherever we are in the world because it’s on the cloud,” Higgins adds.

→ FACTBOX: THE RAPID RISE OF CLOUD

  • Worldwide cloud market expected to reach $178bn in 2018
  • 61 per cent of UK businesses use cloud hosting
  • 94 per cent report improved security after switching
  • Firms investing in Big Data and cloud grew revenue 53 per cent faster than rivals

So what exactly is it? Whereas before data would be stored on specific devices such as your computer – or a dedicated server – with the cloud it is stored on a shared network of servers and can be accessed via the internet using any device. It also allows companies to borrow extra computing power when needed.

The base technology for services such as Google Drive, Apple iCloud, Netflix, Dropbox and Microsoft’s OneDrive, it is also driving forward the capability of technologies such as Google Assistant and artificial intelligence in general.

Cloud offers huge potential for business growth, yet some experts say part of the battle is in educating businesses of the opportunities. “There’s still a perception that cloud means this magical area of the internet where everything just works,” says Neil Lathwood, chief technology officer of Manchester-based cloud provider UKFast. “Most people tend to have an understanding of what it is but not how great it could be for them, so we need to demystify that.”

Martin

Martin Keelagher (pictured above), director of specialist technology support provider CNI Solutions, in Manchester, agrees. “Even though the cloud, as a concept, has been around since the late 1960s, we still find that it is treated with some scepticism by clients,” he says. “The truth is, if you are using any form of technology or even a service, no matter how basic, then the chances are it involves the cloud in some way, at some point in the supply chain.”

Whereas, in our personal lives we’re embracing cloud through Facebook, banking and Apple iTunes, Keelagher says it’s been taken on at a slightly slower rate as a concept within the business community. Instead, businesses are embracing the cloud by stealth and from differing degrees, he says.

“We often find, the best solution, for our clients, at the moment, is a hybrid solution, where core infrastructure might be moved to the cloud, such as email hosting, through a virtualised exchange, but that key documents are held locally, backing up to the cloud, hourly or daily,” he says. “Even if you were to go to the expense of installing a lease line or even a wireless lease line (point-to-point), in attempt to guarantee greater than 99 per cent uptime, it is the 1pc of downtime that could well cost your business dearly. Imagine having your entire workforce unable to work for a day, if staff numbers are over 100, then this can become costly, rather fast. Through operating a hybrid system, the business is able to continue working regardless of their connection.”

Once businesses are on the cloud, benefits include its cost-effectiveness. It’s cheaper to set up, saving on physical space and the bills that come with it, and you can take control of the costs by only using what you need.

UKFast

“Previously a business might have tried to cut costs by using a shared hosting platform, which would have saved money but restricted the options as a business to launch a website and additional services,” says UKFast’s Lathwood. “Cloud allows you to keep spending to a minimum whilst utilising a lot of the resources you wouldn’t have access to with a dedicated server.”

Then there’s the ability to increase storage based on need. “Traditional local storage in the form of physical hardware still holds a lure for many people, but it is limited in its capabilities,” says Philip Clegg, chief technical officer at Manchester-based MirrorWeb. A cloud-native web and social media archiving firm, its technology allows organisations to create permanent, unalterable records to ensure information of commercial, cultural or historical value is never lost.

In 2018, it announced its contract to preserve the UK Government’s entire digital history in a fully searchable, cloud-based archive – the world’s biggest archive.

“Cloud storage allows the unrestrained option to add new storage whenever it is needed, thanks to an ability to scale to almost unlimited capacity,” Clegg adds.

This ability to flex as and when business dictates is important. Lathwood suggests this becomes all the more obvious when a business gets an overnight boost in traffic, perhaps as a result of some publicity. “With a shared hosting platform or dedicated servers you would be capped at certain limits as to how the site would be able to perform,” he says. “With cloud you can scale on demand as your site starts getting a boost and doing more sales. Cloud is great for businesses that need to keep an eye on costs at the start but it allows you to be flexible as he business changes.”

The cloud is much more secure than other options and, as Higgins suggests, allows peace of mind that your business is compliant with regulations. Then there’s the issue of reliability. “Physical hardware such as servers and hard drives can easily be overloaded or fail,” says Clegg. “By comparison, cloud infrastructure has a higher level of redundancy (supplying duplicate copies of data), which can be utilised in case of problems. If a hard drive, data centre or server fails, there is peace of mind in knowing that normal service can be resumed with as little disruption as possible.”

David Goulden, product director at London-based Clarizen, a cloud provider, says businesses are dealing with the modern phenomenon of communication overload, which cloud can combat. The growing use of workplace communication apps like Facebook Worlplace, Skype and Slack has actually done the opposite of streamlining the workplace and improving productivity, he says.

“Such tools can actually hamper productivity because employees typically have to use more than one of these applications at a time to communicate with different teams, alongside checking emails and attending meetings,” Goulden says. “It’s a modern workplace phenomenon we call communication overload, which is characterised by an endless stream of notifications and meeting requests. Cloud-based platforms can help cure communication overload by centralising all communications and tying them to specific business tasks, meaning employees aren’t driven to distraction from checking numerous notifications and worrying that their information isn’t up to date – it can all sit on the cloud being refreshed in real time.”

Wayne Morris, chief marketing officer of London-based cloud provider Skytap, suggest cost savings are secondary to the other benefits for businesses when it comes to agility and innovation. “Rapidly businesses are coming to the conclusion that it’s not really about cost savings but about how to make their business more agile, to get more speed into the business and to be able to help the productivity of individuals in the business,” he says. Retail, manufacturing and healthcare are areas he suggests are seeing dramatic shifts to using cloud, through retailers requiring an omnichannel presence and the rise in online GP services, for example.

“Cloud enables some things that just weren’t possible before,” Morris says. “If you think of a supply chain where you have manufacturers building a TV set. Behind that you have component manufacturers supplying them with components. The sets are shipped to the wholesalers and then they distribute them to retailers. Before, each one would have had their own systems and they still do, but they can be connected using cloud technology to give a view across the chain.”

Whereas a start-up would tend to start in cloud from the ground up, there is more difficulty in shifting a more established enterprise over, Morris says. “It’s risky to say we’ll go all in and rebuild, especially when there’s inventory that’s been built up over many years,” he says. “We’ve seen people build around the edges with new capabilities but have core systems that are sitting in data systems on premises. A lot of businesses are stuck between what they had and where they want to go so end up with a hybrid model.”

With three offices and two distribution centres, one client business of Doncaster-based telecoms provider Connectus found its data was left fragmented between each location. Migrating operations onto the cloud via Google Drive, the business was transformed almost overnight.

“Suddenly information was more readily available and business decisions could be made quicker,” says Duncan Shaw, operations director of Connectus, which provided the solution. “Before they would spend a lot of time gathering a lot of evidence and data, but once everything was in the cloud they could analyse business needs, look at trends and make changes.”

Shaw says the benefits around what you don’t need to do – employ someone to care for your server, pay for repairs when something goes wrong, consider cyber protection – enables a boss to focus more on running their business. The battle can sometimes be around educating owners around the benefits when they are used to buying physical equipment, he says, but this lack of willingness to change can present a barrier to employees working efficiently. “We get under their skin and find out where their pain is and the barriers to what they’re doing, and give them a solution that means their systems will grow with them,” he adds.

Adam

As for the future of cloud, Adam Binks (pictured above), chief executive of SysGroup, which has its head office in Liverpool, cites a report by Cloud Industry Forum, which revealed the overall rate of cloud adoption currently stands at 88 per cent, with predictions of that more than doubling over the next four years.

In line with the other experts, he says multi-cloud is dominating and predictions say it will make up 53 per cent of infrastructure spending by 2021 due to the rise of the Internet of Things. Multi-cloud uses more than one cloud service from a number of different vendors – public or private. It allows businesses to mix and match services to create a blend suited to them, while avoiding dependency on a single cloud provider.

“Looking ahead, the cloud is, and will continue to be, a key enabler of digital transformation within business,” he says. “In the years to come, hybrid cloud will dominate and become a fundamental part of IT infrastructure, fuelled by an increase of connected devices. It’s becoming less a question of whether cloud solutions can help your business, and more what solutions suit you best. Increasingly, those failing to adopt are simply falling behind.”