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Cloud services have the potential to be a great leveller in the IT market, allowing even the smallest companies access to capabilities that previously were the preserve of large organisations with a corporate network, server farms and legions of IT staff to take care of all these facilities.
As one of the largest global software companies, Microsoft is looking to be a leading enabler for this burgeoning market for on-demand online services, and we asked the firm how it sees the SMB cloud services market developing.
Tanya Shirlow, Microsoft's head of SMB marketing in the UK, said there are three main advantages to cloud services for smaller companies: access to IT capabilities that previously required substantial investment in infrastructure; the ability to access services from anywhere, not just the office; and the financial advantage of being able to pay only for what you need to use.
"Significant right now with the recession is how businesses need to do more with less and cut their overall costs. Cloud services let you leverage economies of scale that cloud vendors can deliver, because they are running these services across thousands of servers," she said.
"Another advantage is the idea of paying only for what you use. You pay a monthly fee, and you can scale up when times are good and quickly scale back when times are more constrained. It lets you think differently about costs and how you manage them."
According to Shirlow, cloud services also allow small businesses to introduce greater flexibility. Key applications and services can be made available over the internet, and can be accessed from virtually anywhere, rather than being available only at the company's offices.
This is particularly important for situations when there is travel disruption, such as that caused by heavy snow in the UK during the previous two winters, as workers are no longer tied to a single physical location.
The kind of cloud services smaller companies are already consuming consist largely of functions that are common across all businesses, according to Microsoft. These include business-class email, collaboration, accounting and payroll.
However, SMBs are also looking at a wider range of solutions they might be able to procure online, Shirlow said, such as customer relationship management (CRM) and online data storage, as more and more of these become available.
In fact, in Microsoft's view, it is becoming easy for small businesses to get themselves established with little more than an internet connection and a computer for each worker.
Daniel Robinson is technology editor at V3, and has been working as a technology journalist for over two decades. Dan has served on a number of publications including PC Direct and enterprise news publication IT Week. Areas of coverage include desktops, laptops, smartphones, enterprise mobility, storage, networks, servers, microprocessors, virtualisation and cloud computing.