April 15, 2009

Cloud computing for small businesses

Cloud computing is one of the more recent developments online. A cloud (the internet) provides services and applications (Software as a service) to you without the need to run your own computer room, servers and related infrastructure.

Cloud Computing related resources
Wikipedia Cloud computing reference
Google Applications
Salesforce
Sugar CRM
Project Pier – Project collaboration
Mantis issue tracking

As a small (or even a larger business), if you’ve ever had to invest in a computer data center you’ll appreciate the costs and resource overheads including racks, network, backups, servers, software and people to look after it all.

At Webopius, a lot of our developers work remotely and also need to visit client sites on a regular basis. A cloud based application model was the obvious choice for us and having now built phase 1, I thought the experience and applications we chose would be of interest to other business owners.

Note: This is not a paid for posting! We selected the applications and providers. Webopius has no relationship with any of these companies – we just like their products.

Cloud Infrastructure

For our cloud applications we chose a fairly powerful Virtual Private Server solution from Slicehost. We’ve used Slicehost before and even their basic servers
perform well. For the cloud, we are currently using a quadcore Ubuntu Linux server with 1Gb RAM and RAID-10 disk storage. On top of this, we are running the nginx web server instead of Apache. Nginx is a high performance, lightweight server that requires a little more configuration than a typical Apache install but has a smaller memory footprint.

Unlike running the infrastructure on our own servers, we can upgrade easily if we need more performance or bandwidth… with a higher monthly fee of course! Still less costly than upgrading your own server.

Cloud Backups. For backups, we created a Unix cron task that saves the application folders and databases into a local backup directory. We then remote copy this backup directory to a second server. The three most recent backups are stored along with a monthly copy.

Email, Spreadsheets and Documents… Google Apps

First, the basics… email. Without a doubt, I would recommend Google mail and the associated Google Apps suite. For no cost at all, you can get a company email address (name@webopius.com) hosted by Google, 7Gb of email storage per user and up to 200 user accounts. If this isn’t enough you can upgrade to the premium edition for a monthly fee.

Once you have the email account, you can also use the Google Apps – Calendar, Chat, Word processor, Spreadsheets. For serious work, you still can’t beat having MS Office installed locally but the Google apps are still powerful enough for general business use. They also have a great API which we use to create dynamic web pages that take elements of content from Google Apps spreadsheets and documents to display on sites.

Compare this to having your own mail server, spam manager and backup system in place and it is a very attractive option.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM)…. SugarCRM

The lead player in the Software as a service CRM space is SalesForce.com. For a monthly fee you get the ability to manage your leads, contacts, opportunities, sales forecasts and so on.

SalesForce is a product that we may move to as our business grows. In the meantime, we selected the SugarCRM platform Community edition which has the core features that we need. The only feature we’d really like in Sugar is Sales quotations and contract management but you can get this in the commercial professional edition.

Project Tracking… dotProject or Project Pier

As a web development and project management company, our business revolves around tracking requirements, tasks, milestones and progress. We also have a number of remote staff who need to regularly be allocated tasks and report back on progress.

We looked at a number of products and selected Project Pier. Although basic in its functionality and using the code base of the now commercial activeCollab, Project Pier has most of the features we need. Another good product that we may switch to at some point is dotProject.

Issue Tracking

Our next challenge was to select a tool for online tracking of enhancement requests, bugs, queries and so on. We originally started with Bugzilla but discovered the Mantis issue/bug tracking system.

Mantis is very easy to configure and use. Set up a project, assign users to it, start logging issues and progress.

Document Management

Our final selected application covered document management. The ability to control revisions of documentation, handle approvals and workflow are used by us with a number of clients.

The product we chose was KnowledgeTree. Again, an open source solution with a commercial option for additional features and support.

KnowledgeTree is ideal for document management. Configuration and use is very straightforward.

Conclusions

Although not by any means a definitive list of products, the solutions above allow us to run our business online with team members working remotely. It gives us a core set of applications to manage email, customer relationships, projects, documents and issues.

All of this can be run without the cost and management overhead of internal infrastructure or IT resources to run it. I believe this is definitely the future model for many businesses.

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