Last reviewed 10 October 2012

Technology plays an important part in the success of today’s businesses — particularly when they have executives travelling all over the world or permanently based abroad. Eric Bagshaw takes a practical look at how cloud solutions can support today’s technology-dependent business traveller.

Introduction

In a nutshell, cloud replaces the traditional office network with online services. A business cloud suite provides data access, plus added value features such as messaging, conferencing and even applications. Its anytime, anywhere access model delivers mobility to the connected executive, while its billing model, monthly by feature and user, delivers financial flexibility.

Cloud — features and benefits

The cloud services of most interest to the peripatetic professional are described next, with focus on how they interface with mainstream business solution Microsoft Office 365.

Applications

In place of local storage on a laptop or a firm’s network, cloud servers host data files that are editable using standard desktop applications such as Word and Excel. While not a cloud-specific feature, such MS Office applications are increasingly being included in service contracts. Traditionally, software has been a capital purchase and upgraded as new versions launch. In contrast, for £15 per user per month the Office 365 Professional Plus plan includes a suite of applications that can be installed on multiple PCs.

“Web apps” — stripped down applications delivered on demand via the browser — are being popularised by the likes of Google and Microsoft. In feature terms these may disappoint the most demanding power user but they are fine for the mainstream and ideal for mobile execs working on, say, a borrowed PC.

Application platform

Office 365 includes SharePoint, a powerful and highly customisable web application platform, offering database and sophisticated document storage, complete with tagging and workflow.

With the advent of Google Marketplace and Office Store, cloud solutions are no longer just storage repositories or proprietary platforms. Firms can now choose from a wealth of third-party applications to satisfy all of a typical company’s business requirements.

Messaging and meetings

Messaging, in its many forms, is one of the cloud’s most powerful deliverables and of particular interest to mobile and distributed teams. Telecoms are included under this broad umbrella, as voice is increasingly merging with the traditional computer comms of e-mail and instant messaging. Voice over IP (VOIP) leverages the Internet to deliver call flexibility and typically lower costs. Services such as Skype offer all the main permutations — free PC-to-PC calls and billed calls between mixed links and phone to phone.

Office 365’s messaging front-end is Lync, a powerful desktop and evolving Smartphone app. Via a single view it combines instant messaging, video conferencing, application sharing, voicecalls (PC and PABX) plus presence — a traffic light system indicating your log-on and availability status. These “lights” propagate into SharePoint lists and document libraries. Lync delivers slick and comprehensive communication as individuals (authors and task owners, etc) appear complete with their availability, colour codes and clicking on a name launches a mini Lync view, with buttons for all major comms functions. Federation with Skype is planned for Lync 2013 extending connectivity to non–365 users.

Exchange is Office 365’s messaging hub that synchronises e-mail to desk applications such as Outlook and smartphones. The browser based Outlook Web App is ideal for mobile users employing a shared PC. E-mail is just the start. Unified Messaging (UM) combines voice and e-mail into a single inbox accessible from PCs and telephones. UM is included with Office 365 Enterprise E3 and E4 plans, the latter including licensing to link Exchange with a firm’s telephony network via an onsite server.

Rajah Voice for Office 365 takes VOIP telephony to its cloud-hosted conclusion. No hardware is required so it is ideal for smaller firms that cannot justify an IP PABX or linked server. A company account is created via the Jajah website and the required phone lines ordered. Using the account control panel these numbers are allocated to individuals and via Exchange the staff office numbers are updated to match. All users are bulk selected in Lync and the Jajah plan confirmed. Considering what is being achieved this setup is very straightforward, as the registration video illustrates.

Team bonding

Distributed teams also benefit from a cloud suite’s “bonding features”. These vary, but typically include a team website, blogs and wikis. With a little customisation it is often possible to deliver a powerful “one-stop shop” dashboard view containing announcements, news, discussions and personalised content such as one’s own tasks, calendar and documents. Office 365 Enterprise editions include a wealth of social features — personal profiling views, discussions and interactive organisation charts — designed to improve team bonding and co-operative working within large and distributed teams.

Travelling practicalities

Cloud’s central storage model demands fast and reliable connectivity. While not a problem for most UK office staff, mobile executives may not be so lucky! To continue to reap the benefits, it is vital to plan to maintain links and circumvent problems when this is not possible.

Keeping in touch — connectivity and costs

Cellular coverage is becoming more pervasive but can be patchy and costly. Wi-Fi can be both cost effective and deliver superior performance. Public hotspots are proliferating and most large Telecoms providers offer their own or have partnerships to deliver worldwide hotspot support. Packages are complex; each business must balance the service as whole to decide which offers the best combination of features and value.

Working offline

Offline working, with automated synchronisation, has the potential to circumvent most connectivity issues plus also optimise bandwidth and in turn reduce costs.

Office 365’s offline module creates a mirrored copy of a firm’s cloud site — on a laptop. In the absence of connectivity you can work on this “local” version, editing documents, updating tasks and, of course, handling e-mails. On reconnection the data is automatically synchronised, reconciling changes plus highlighting potential clashes — such as when someone else has edited the same file. This style of working optimises links and soon becomes second nature.

Pricing plans and cloud alternatives

The two comprehensive Office 365 plans are Small Business (P1 at £4.25) and Midsize Businesses and Enterprises (four versions, E1–E4, priced at £5.75–£16.50). P1 is limited to one SharePoint subsite and a maximum of 50 users, while E plans support up to 50,000 users and 300 subsites, and E4 offers VOIP links. Prices are per user per month and exclude taxes. Modular plans are also available.

This article focused on Office 365 — a full-featured suite, honed for business users. Comparable alternatives include Google and Zoho. Google is leveraging its Google+ and Groups for team and social applications. Meanwhile, Zoho — in addition to the traditional cloud suite — has a growing range of apps, including business mainstays such as accounting and CRM, plus developer tools such as workflow and bug trackers. Most modules have “limited user number” free versions — ideal for evaluation and very small businesses. Zoho also has its own Marketplace for developers and partners.

There is a growing range of case studies looking at travel-dependent and distributed firms that have made the leap to 365. These include organisations as diverse as Argyll and Bute Council (Lync for 2000 staff across 60 separate sites and IT services extended to 350 locations), Bang & Olufsen (75% employees work remotely) and Oxfam. More general cases can be found on the 365 site and, for a high-level view, take a look at a Microsoft-commissioned White Paper: The Anywhere Working City.

In the very near future, cloud hosting will be the norm for business — whether large or small. Provided the mobile executive can connect as required, this paradigm will deliver many benefits, both home and abroad.