As a small business owner you will have found by now that you accrue a surprising amount of paper documents, electronic documents and emails most of which you had no idea were important right up to the time you actually need them and realised they were, in fact, vital! You probably also have some form of backing these up (you do, don’t you?) and the most likely method of backing stuff up is via a USB external hard drive which can be purchased for not-many-pounds these days. You may even have 2 or 3 external drives to give you a warm fuzzy feeling.
Sorry but external disc drives are not infallible. In fact, I had two catastrophic hardware failures in just a few months which is what led me to review my backup strategy and change my ways. You can’t get away from the fact that external drives, memory sticks and memory cards are physical devices – they can be damaged by water, fire, mishandling and electrical surges or you could be a victim of theft so if you’re reliant on them for backups then you could lose everything; gone forever. In large organisations they go to great lengths and spend a lot of money ensuring their backup strategies are robust and fail-safe but we’re a small business, right?
I’m sure by now we’ve all heard of the ‘cloud’ but my experiences of talking to businesses and individuals is that very few understand what the Cloud really is and why it might be useful to them plus all sorts of scaremongering by the media has led us to believe ‘The Cloud’ could well be the spawn of Satan and the target of international hackers. Back to basics then – the cloud is nothing new for large organisations who could afford the infrastructure but the concept is quite new for individuals and smaller businesses, hence the scepticism, fear and uncertainty. Think of it like this. You have your computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone and it stores and organises documents, photos etc. Now imagine you buy yourself an external hard-drive to either add more storage space or to do backups. The USB lead you use to connect it is, what, 1 metre long? but imagine it were technically possible (it’s not) to use a USB cable a few hundred metres long – then you could keep your external drive at a neighbours house where it would be safe if you had a fire or were flooded or were burgled. OK so the world would soon be littered with cables trailing across the streets but, hey, our data would be pretty secure and we’d always have access to it on-demand from our desktops.
The big enabler of the cloud has been high speed broadband and even those who experience the lowest broadband speeds can still use ‘the cloud’ effectively. In fact what we call a cloud is nothing more than a load of computers, probably just like yours, spread around the globe whose job it is to connect to the internet and store stuff for you. The technology has always been there but internet connection speeds prohibited serious use for most people. Today though the internet is fast enough (for most people) to replace that USB cable with a sort of ‘virtual’ cable that connects you to the outside world and this in turn makes it viable to store documents, photos etc. all over the place, safe from harm.
What about security?
We all think about security in different ways from the slapdash to the obsessive compulsive among us but day-to-day for most of the documents that allow us to run our businesses we need to take a sensible, affordable, rational and reasonable approach. Personally I can’t think of a single business document I rely on being of any value whatsoever to a determined hacker. It goes without saying you should never keep banking details or passwords in a document of any shape or form no matter where they are stored but if a hacker got hold of my bank account number and sort code, the worst he or she could do would be to pay money in to my account! I suppose if they wished they could use some information to attempt identity theft but the key information they would need is in my head or on the back of my credit cards and not written down. Honestly, I’m not at all worried about storing my important files (any files in fact) in the cloud because 1) The reputable providers of cloud storage such as Google, Dropbox and Microsoft (to name but a few) have a very secure infrastructure and 2) Importantly, I have a very secure password which I use. By the way, if you want to see how secure your password is, check out https://howsecureismypassword.net/ but use a similar password to your own rather than type-in the real one, just in case! If you play around with this you’ll find adding a capital letter and including a couple of numbers can make all the difference. It it estimated a computer would take 400 years to crack my password, I can live with that!
My point is that if you have a good, secure password the cloud is uber safe and solid as a rock. It’s certainly more secure than that little black box you call an external hard drive!
Other concerns I hear voiced is “What if the provider goes bust or cease trading?” and “What if they suddenly start charging or increase charges?”. Well both of these are more likely than a security breach in my view but we’re talking about big multi-national companies here and the likelihood is that if they did ever cease trading someone would take-over the service ‘as is’. They could, I suppose, also ramp-up their charges or change their terms & conditions to something you weren’t happy with but, in all cases, don’t forget you’d always have the ability to download all your stored files and go elsewhere.
Don’t I have to pay for cloud storage?
You can pay for storage but most services offer a certain level for free. Google at the moment offer 15Gb (that’s an awful lot) for free but if you’re prepared to pay $1.99 (yes one dollar and 99 cents) a month they’ll give you 100Gb and for the really data-hungry amongst you, 1 whole Terabyte for just $9.99 a month. That’s virtually industrial size on a small business budget but frankly, for most users the free 15Gb will be sufficient and you can always upgrade later if you wish. What’s more, you can access the service, Called Google Drive, from pretty much any internet enabled browser on any sort of device anywhere on the planet at any time.
Free storage – what’s the catch?
Well there isn’t really a catch. I’ll talk about Google specifically (as a Google Developer I would, wouldn’t I?) but all of the major cloud storage providers operate in a similar way. In order to use Google’s Drive (and a host of other useful services such as Google Photos) it’s best to have a ‘Google ID’. This is a Google email address which you can create for free – you’d don’t have to use Google Mail (GMail) but think of it as your login details for all Google services. If you have an Android phone you may already have a Goggle account which can be used for accessing it’s multitude of on-line services but anyway, it’s worth creating one. That’s it, that’s all you need to do and once Google have verified your account via SMS or Email (or indeed an old fashioned thing we used to call a letter) then you’ll have access to Google Drive and more. Check out the apps available for Windows, iOS and Android as well, of course, as being able to access Google Drive from your computer desktop via a browser at https://www.google.com/drive/
Also, if you’re on a Windows PC you can download a small piece of software which will automatically synchronise any folders, desktop etc. with the Cloud service. Nice. You can drag and drop any files, photos, documents etc directly into the Cloud or create a new directory (folder) structure in it to better organise things. It’s very easy and intuitive. Give it a try.
But what about important files in emails?
I bet that many of your ‘important’ files are lurking somewhere in an email these days and that any attempt to locate them in a hurry results in a range of verbal expletives, yes? I would recommend that any attachment in an email is downloaded immediately to your computer and stored-away safely in your cloud backup. Let me ask you a question – that email your accountant sent you containing your year-end accounts – where is it? I mean, where does it actually reside? Is it on your computer hard drive, on your phone or tablet or being stored somewhere by your email provider? I bet most of you won’t know – but knowing the answer is vitally important. I won’t go in to all the details here (but if you’d like to know, get in-touch) but for most ‘free’ email services such as Hotmail, Yahoo Mail etc. the answer is that your email exists on one of their servers somewhere out there on the internet (in the Cloud in fact) and that when you access it in a browser or via an app, it’s just showing you a ‘picture’ of your email and it doesn’t actually keep a copy on your device, unless you specifically ask it to, which may be tricky. However, if you have an email service provided by, say, BT or a web hosting service attached to your website and are using what’s called a ‘desktop client’ like Microsoft Outlook or Thunderbird then it’s likely (although not certain) that your emails live in the real world on your computer or phone. That’s a bit dodgy really because if you lost that computer some reason or you simply bought a new one, you’re stuck with the problem of transferring your emails to the new computer which may not be at all easy.
A far better solution is to use a free email service like GMail from Google. GMail is very clever and makes it easy to add the accounts of virtually any email provider and them display emails all in one secure, nicely set-out interface (or in a Gmail app on iOS and Android). The great thing is that not only are you secure in the knowledge your email is safe in the Cloud you can add multiple accounts in GMail so, for example, you could have work and personal email addresses arriving in the same inbox. Because I run email services for a number of clients and I’m the technical contact, I actually have GMail collect and filter 17 different email accounts for me – that saves a LOT of logging-in and out of different accounts but, for me, the best reason to use GMail’s interface for sending and receiving email is the advanced search capabilities. You can search by the obvious fields such as sender, subject etc. but you can also easily say “Show me all emails within 5 days of 15th March, 2017 which contain the word ‘accounts’ and it does a great job of finding the likely candidates.There you have it then, get your files ‘in the cloud’ and use something like Gmail to organise your life. Seriously, as a small business owner you really won’t regret it.