Cloud Computing: Small Companies Take Flight

Small businesses are flocking to the new services, which provide secure IT infrastructure with little up-front investment and no heavy lifting

When hurricanes Katrina and Rita passed over Schumacher Group's multimillion-dollar data center in Louisiana in 2005, Doug Menefee, the company's chief information officer, breathed a sigh of relief. His company manages the staffing for emergency room physicians at more than 145 hospitals in the Southeast, and if the center had gone down it could have hampered efforts to get doctors to the locations where they could care for injured patients. "It was a high risk to our organization," says Menefee.

Menefee realized he had to hurricane-proof his company's technology. His budget was limited, though. So he turned to an evolving technology known as "cloud computing," where companies can get software and services with relatively little up-front investment. With such an approach, service providers such as IBM (IBM), Amazon (AMZN), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and others do all the heavy lifting. They maintain the servers in their own data centers, fix any problems that might occur, manage disaster recovery planning, and continually upgrade the software. Customers like Schumacher typically pay by the month and by the user, so they don't need to spend lots of cash to get started. Employees have access to the software through the Internet.

While many large companies have been hesitant to use the new services, small and medium-size businesses are flocking to them. About 31% of medium-size companies (defined as those with 100 to 999 employees) currently use these software services, double the uptake in 2004, according to a March 2008 report from consulting firm Access Markets International Partners (AMI-Partners). That popularity stems from a need for IT solutions that are easy to use and maintain by companies that have limited infrastructure and budgets.

"More than 50% of our processes are now in some type of software as a service or cloud environment," says Menefee. Schumacher Group, with 750 full-time employees, relies heavily on Salesforce.com (CRM), a customer-relationship management service, to keep tabs on 2,500 independently contracted emergency room physicians. About 70% of hospitals outsource the staffing and management of emergency room physicians, partially because there's a shortage of ER doctors and the recruiting is highly specialized. Salesforce.com helps the company keep track of individual contracts, pay rates, and the hospitals where each doctor can work.

Create Your Own Applications

Aside from software services, small and medium-size companies now have a range of other options, including platform services and hardware services. Schumacher is also creating its own custom applications using another service from Salesforce.com, called Force.com. This service lets developers rapidly create their own business applications over the Internet without the hassle of dealing with hardware or software and is known as "platform as a service." It essentially provides a plug-in architecture so companies can build custom software, with many of the underlying building blocks already in place. That's different from infrastructure services such as Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), which may give you server capacity but few of the other tools you need to get up and running.

"The trade-off is that the platform service is much more built out, so you lose some flexibility," says Michael Crandell, CEO of 2 Next Page

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