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10 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Cloud Provider

With an increasing number of companies offering an ever-growing menu of cloud computing solutions, choosing one can be challenging.

Kim Lachance Shandrow

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Moving your business operations like email and document storage to the cloud can cut costs, streamline your workflow and eliminate the need for in-house IT personnel and hardware. The cloud can also make it easier for remote employees to report for duty, access key information and collaborate online.

But perhaps the biggest benefit for small companies is the ability to concentrate on the business at hand and let the cloud-based service handle such worrisome IT concerns as security, maintenance, backup and support.

With an increasing number of companies offering an ever-growing menu of cloud computing solutions, choosing one can be challenging. Here are 10 essential questions to ask as you screen potential providers to select the right one for your particular needs:

1. Which cloud services do you provide?

Knowing what your cloud computing needs are will dictate the type of service or services you choose, says Nicholas Bessmer, author of Cloud Computing for Small Business (Amazon, 2013).

There are software-based cloud offerings, such as Dropbox for online document, photo and video storage. Intuit offers QuickBooks for online accounting. And there’s Salesforce for online customer relationship management (CRM).

If you need more than basic data storage, several vendors offer a range of general-purpose cloud computing services, including IT networking infrastructure with on-demand access to virtual servers, applications and software. These include IBM SmartCloud Enterprise, Amazon Web Services and GoGrid.

2. What is your pricing structure?

You should only pay for what you use, says Mike Foreman, a general manager at AVG Technologies, an Amsterdam-based internet and mobile data security provider.

Also, be wary of large upfront costs, which aren’t the norm for reputable cloud vendors, Foreman says. The pricing scheme should be pay-as-you go from the outset, with the ability to add services as needed. Fees can typically be charged hourly, monthly, semi-annually or annually, depending on the vendor.

Pricing for cloud computing services can vary significantly, from as low as about $1 per month per user to $100 a month per user and up, depending on a company’s needs.

3. How secure is your cloud?

Security should be a major consideration when it comes to storing your company’s critical data in the cloud. Cloud providers should have several standard security measures in place and constantly update them, Foreman says. “You’ve got to be sure that you’re completely comfortable with your cloud provider’s approach to security.”

Security measures to look for include firewalls, anti-virus detection, multifactor user authentication and data encryption, and routine security audits. It’s also important to ask who at the cloud company will have access to your data in the cloud and whether the cloud provider does employee background checks to weed out potential cybercriminals or identity thieves.

Foreman says providers also should answer questions about compliance with government legislation specific to your industry. For example, if your business is in the healthcare industry, you’ll want to be sure your cloud provider is compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which deals with patient data privacy and security.

4. Where is your data centre and how safe is it?

The location and security of the data centres and servers where your company’s information will be stored are as important as online security, Foreman says. “You want to make sure you’re not doing business with a guy with a couple of servers in a spare room somewhere that could quite easily be accessed and compromised.”

To make sure that isn’t the case, Foreman suggests asking how a potential cloud vendor protects its data centre from natural disasters, including fires, floods, earthquakes and storms. Also, find out how the facilities are protected from thieves who could walk away with your sensitive data.

Perhaps the best indicator that a cloud vendor’s data centres can withstand a myriad of security threats is a Standards for Attestation Engagements 16 (SSAE 16) certification. SSAE 16 certification demonstrates that a company’s products, systems and data are compliant with the industry security standards for customer access and privacy, data centre physical security and data redundancy.

5. What happens if you lose my data?

On the off chance your cloud provider accidentally deletes or loses your precious data, you need to know how it will rectify the problem. Be sure to ask: What provisions are in the company’s Service Level Agreement (SLA) that address potential data losses?

Will the provider compensate you for losses? What data redundancies does it have in place to mitigate the risks of data loss? It’s also important to ask if the company has experienced any significant issues resulting from the loss of customer data.

6. What customer support services do you offer?

Without exception, technical support should be available to you online or by phone 24 hours a day, every day, including holidays, Bessmer advises.

You should also inquire about the average response and resolution time, and whether you’ll be interacting with knowledgeable engineers or customer service reps reading scripts when you call the customer help line or use a live chat feature.

7. Can your cloud scale up to meet my business needs?

As your business grows, so will your cloud storage needs. To ensure that you’re choosing a flexible cloud provider, find out what additional storage capacity and other services can be offered over time and for how much. If you plan to increase your staff, you’ll want to make sure that you can easily add additional users to your account.

8. What’s your downtime history?

Downtime is when a cloud provider is inaccessible to users via the internet for a period of time. Naturally, the best answer to this question is never. However, even the biggest, best-known cloud providers occasionally experience downtime, as Amazon recently did during an outage that took down Netflix.

Because cloud outages can be disruptive and costly for your business, it’s best to choose a provider with as few as possible. Some vendors post their downtime history logs online. If not, be sure to ask for a cloud provider’s track record.

9. How will I get set up?

Once you choose and sign with a cloud provider, the next step is typically to log in to your user dashboard and begin configuring your account and adding employees as users. Some cloud vendors will walk you through how to install and set up their services, while others, such as Amazon and Google, simply provide online introductory guides, Bessmer says.

10. How will I access my company’s cloud?

You should be able to access your business information in the cloud from anywhere at any time via the web simply by signing in to your provider’s client login page. You can use any device to log in, including your laptop, smartphone or tablet

Kim Lachance Shandrow is a Los Angeles-based tech journalist who specializes in writing about iPhone, BlackBerry, and Android phones, as well as social media marketing, startups, streaming TV, apps and green technology. Her work has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show, MSNBC.com, NBC.com, and in The Los Angeles Times and The International Business Times. She also consults for Ameba, a Canadian multiplatform children’s streaming TV startup.

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Innovation

3 Strategies To Implement A Culture Of Innovation In Your Business (Without Blowing Billions)

Learn to think differently, encourage your team to do the same, and innovative disruption could become a part of your company’s DNA.

Douglas Kruger

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You’re seeing it everywhere. Disruptive innovation is becoming the new norm, and you’re concerned that your business is merely going through the motions, missing opportunities.

How can you join the Elon Musks of the world, without the corresponding bulging budget?

It turns out that many of the techniques of today’s top innovators don’t require vast outlay. They’re simply about different ways of thinking.

Here are three strategies for enhancing the culture of innovation in your organisation without blowing billions.

1Use ‘Ignorance as strategy’

You’ve encountered the aphorism, ‘To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’ Similarly, to a banker, the only imaginable approach to banking is ‘the way banking has always been done’. When bankers try to think of innovative new ways of banking, they invariably think of greater complexity.

Along came PayPal

In the April 2016 edition of Harvard Business Review, Reid Hoffman, one of the founders of PayPal, said, ‘All the banking people knew the rules. That prevented them from trying anything that looked remotely like PayPal.’

PayPal was not invented by a bank, just as Uber was not invented by a taxi driver.

Related: Demanding Customers Are The Ones Who Motivate Innovation

To make use of ‘ignorance as strategy,’ try this. Gather a group of strategic thinkers and set the rule: ‘The old way of doing it has been outlawed. How else might we serve the same need?’

Or: ‘We are now our competitors. We have half the budget, but our hearts and souls are invested in one purpose: To topple the original company. We can’t do it the way they do it. So how could we go about it?’

Or: ‘The company has burnt to the ground. We’ve lost everything. We need to keep serving our customers but we need a new, cheap, fast way to do it right now that doesn’t rely on any equipment or systems we used before. What have you got?’

2Use commander’s intent

military-commander

Imagine: You’re a military commander. You need to move a convoy of trucks through a dangerous canyon. Your intelligence tells you that there is a sniper on one of the escarpments.

There are two ways you could issue an instruction to a soldier:

The first way: ‘Go take out that sniper.’

That’s very clear, and very good. But there’s something surprisingly important missing from it. The ‘why’ is not overtly stated, and for that reason, the mission could actually fail.

Let’s try it again the second way: ‘Go take out that sniper because we need to ensure safe passage through the canyon for our convoy.’

That may sound like a ridiculously obvious addition. Here is why it’s not: In a real, dynamic scenario, things change constantly.

Let’s say your soldier breaks off from the convoy and heads up into the mountains. Very quickly, three things go wrong:

  1. He can’t find the sniper
  2. Enemy forces start firing at him, making it difficult to look for the sniper
  3. His own weapon fails to fire so that he can’t shoot back.

If our soldier thinks only about the literal instruction — ‘shoot the sniper’ — he is now unable to carry it out. But if he bases his actions on the commander’s intention — ‘secure our convoy’ — other options open up to him.

Related: Reel Gardening Warns That Innovation Is Never Easy

He might draw their fire. He might set a bushfire. Or he might cause a commotion in a different canyon, disguising the movements of his convoy. He might, he might, he might… But only if he is absolutely clear on Commander’s Intent, and not working according to an explicit tasked item only.

Managers love to create detailed rules and procedures. But these can actually stifle innovation. Commander’s Intent is the life hack by which we get the upper hand again, freeing up leeway for creative potential.

3Instead of rules: Imaginative debate

Organisations accumulate rules over time. Problematically, rules can become a form of culture. And there is a better way.

When NASA faced two separate, well-known challenges, their culture at each stage was very different.

In 1970, Apollo 13 was two days into its mission when an explosion knocked out one of their oxygen tanks. The ensuing creative scramble to get the astronauts safely home is the stuff of legend. The creative trial and experimentation that went into rescuing them was formidable. New procedures were made up back on earth, then tested in the simulator, then relayed to the astronauts 200 000 miles away, almost in real-time.

Through this process of creative trial and experimentation, of collaborative inter-disciplinary debate, one by one the issues were resolved and the crew was brought home safely.

At this point in time, NASA’s culture was ruled by imaginative debate. It was an exploratory culture, an experimenting culture, a culture based on learning and evolution.

By contrast, at the time of the Columbia disaster of 2003, the culture of experimentation had given way to one of formalised rules, regimented procedures and rigid hierarchy. NASA had stopped being a learning organisation. It had become a bureaucracy instead.

As Columbia re-entered the earth’s atmosphere, a large piece of foam fell from the shuttle’s external tank and broke the wing of the spacecraft. The shuttle broke into pieces. NASA recovered 84 000 pieces from a debris field of over 2 000 square miles.

The investigation revealed some damning insights about the culture that led to the problem.

Related: Howard Blake Stays Hungry With His Innovation Strategy

During a post-launch review, a group of engineers actually saw this foam dislodge from the rocket. They tried to pass on this information. NASA’s management, which by this stage liked to manage everything ‘by the rules’, had seen dislodged foam before, and, according to their institutionalised perceptions, deemed it to be unimportant.

The engineers tried to argue that it seemed like a lot more foam than usual. It was a qualitative argument, based on human insight and intelligence. But NASA was unable to listen. Dislodging foam was a known quantity, and the voices of dissenters went unheeded.

NASA by this stage was so bound in rules and procedures that, in important ways, it had ceased to be a learning, experimenting culture. And that made it incapable of hearing an idea, to its great detriment.

Situational awareness

Imaginative debate allows situational awareness to pass up and down the chain of command. It promotes the opportunity to see innovation possibilities. It shows up problems that fall outside of the capacity of norms and guidelines.

The Israeli Defence Force uses an examination of these two cultures within NASA as a way of perpetuating a learning culture within its own organisation. In Start-Up Nation, Israeli air-force pilot Tal Keinan is quoted as saying that if NASA had stuck to their experimental culture, the way his own air force and military do, they would have identified and seriously debated the foam strikes at the daily debrief.

Debating everything isn’t tedious. It’s illuminating.

Putting rules in place of debate isn’t clarifying. It’s dulling.

Rigid rules enforced by unlearning authority are a recipe for real danger. The use of strenuous debate helps to overcome these blind spots.

Cultures of learning are far more idea-friendly than bureaucracies. And it costs nothing to become one. Merely a little willingness.

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Innovation

To Have An Innovative Company, Let Your Employees Take The Reins

‘In order to clean, they need to get messy,’ serial entrepreneur Justin Klosky tells Entrepreneur’s editor-in-chief Jason Feifer.

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Related: Demanding Customers Are The Ones Who Motivate Innovation

An innovative company starts with an innovative team. And what’s the best way to innovate? Give your employees the freedom to run with their own ideas, then manage the chaos later. At least that’s what Reid Hoffman believes.

“If you want your company to innovate, your job is to manage the chaos,” says the co-founder of LinkedIn, partner at VC firm Greylock and host of Masters of Scale, a podcast series examining counterintuitive theories to growing a company.

Hoffman’s theory doesn’t seem too far-fetched either. In fact, he’s not the only person who thinks giving employees the freedom to think and create on their own triggers innovation.

“When [people] have that ability to explore and innovate without the pressure of failing, you’re setting yourself up for a ‘win’ situation, because you’re going to get the best out of somebody,” Justin Klosky, founder of professional organizing company O.C.D. Experience, tells Entrepreneur’s editor-in-chief, Jason Feifer, in a video.

Although, when you’re empowering employees with this much freedom, you’ve got to be hiring people you trust. This can be easier said than done. Rather than dissecting a person’s resume, Klosky recommends digging deeper and asking prospective employees questions that will really open them up – anything from who they are, where they’re going and what brought them here.

Related: Beyond Innovation – it’s Innovation Velocity That Really Matters…

After you’ve hired a group of honest, intelligent employees, now what? Don’t tell them how to innovate. Instead, let them figure that out on their own. Allow employees to do what they do best, return to you with their results and from there manage the chaos.

“In order to clean, they need to get messy,” says Klosky.

For more insights and advice about managing an innovative culture, check out the video.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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Innovation

Do You Know How To Stay Relevant?

In this tough economic climate, you need to start focusing on business areas you can control. The ability to stay agile and relevant is in your hands.

Ed Hatton

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We have seen huge changes in South Africa recently. Just five years ago, we had a thriving platinum mining sector, good exports of commodities, no e-tolls, a rand dollar rate of better than 8:1 and peaceful universities.

All that has changed, with a significant effect on our SME sector. Imports cost more, finance is expensive and socio-political and labour issues disrupt business frequently.

Customers have changed too; many buyers now complete over 60% of the sale by Internet research. They make comparisons, shortlist potential suppliers and only ask for quotations when they are close to deciding on their supplier.

You could’ve fallen off the shortlist and didn’t even know it

Your company could have been a potential supplier and then fallen off the shortlist without you ever knowing about the lost opportunity. Customers no longer rely on sales staff to provide information about products and applications, and even the least tech-savvy customer checks prices and specifications online.

24/7 availability is now expected, and long delivery times become unacceptable. Customers assume you will be able to slot in unplanned orders efficiently. Loyalty is no longer a given; buyers will move to suppliers who provide better value, even if that supplier is overseas.

Related: 10 Steps For All-Around Optimising Your Business

Lead through quality

Entrepreneurs should recognise that the way we have done business in the past might need modification; there is a risk of being overtaken by more agile competitors. Uber, Airbnb and Netflix are great examples of competitors changing the rules.

What is happening in your markets? What are your competitors doing? Do not just accept feedback from your staff — they are also in their comfort zones. Research competitors and new technologies; ask customers what they would like to see you change.

If you make a decision to update your business, there are several areas you could focus on to build a more agile business that gives better value for money. Technology, quality, customer service, IT, Internet presence, continuous learning and strategy review are among those. A few of the vital ones include:

  • Use available technology. Check prices and terms from alternate suppliers, investigate IT solutions to provide flexible manufacturing systems, optimise inventory and give better response times for customer enquiries.

A good CRM system can track complaints, give basic data to spot new market trends and identify customers starting to move away from you. Develop apps to improve customer convenience or optimise sales calls.

Related: When Innovating Beware The Blindspots

  • Increase quality in all respects, from your products to the accuracy of your invoices. Spend money on quality systems and business processes. You will get it all back in direct and indirect savings by having less comebacks of all types. Better quality in all respects increases your value proposition, and helps to justify your price.

Embrace agility

Overhaul your customer service. Set improvement targets for order fulfilment, right first time repairs, shorter lead times, more convenient customer interfaces and all the other elements of great customer service. Then put plans in place and implement them. Financial returns will follow.

You need an effective and integrated Internet presence, with rich content, which means useful short pieces, not lots of content. Your social media presence must be integrated and support your brand and value proposition. Do not follow trends blindly because everyone thinks they are cool.

Revisit your strategy

Your company must be agile enough to change strategies and tactics to take advantage of market and competitor changes, rather than seeing them as threats. An outside facilitator helps.

All of this sounds like a lot of work and expense, but right now you may be using large chunks of time and money fixing errors, working around old systems, losing customers you should not lose and not getting new customers you should get. Stop all that and you will have time and money to create the new agile and informed company you could be, and stay relevant in your markets.

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