Living in the Cloud…

Fiber CC-18
(CC) Benoît Felten

The last few weeks have been an interesting journey in actually experiencing a number of cloud services first hand. One thing I was determined about going into this new business venture was not to weigh it down with physical assets from the start. A laptop and a mobile phone was really all I needed. I'd been working from my basement (or on the road) for the last 3 years, no reason why that needed to change.

Most days, I'm not actually working from my basement. My partners let me use a free desk in their cool architect house turned offices in Vincennes. That aside, I've been building Diffraction Analysis with the no physical asset philosophy in mind (so far).

The first step was using Google Apps Pro. $40 a year for an email account with your own domain name and a dozen or so apps is a pretty sweet deal. That led to an interesting and unexpected discussion with my partners. In all honesty, I was expecting them to tell me: "Look, we've got an Exchange server, it's paid for, why don't you just let us set you up with an account." Instead, they looked at what I was proposing to do and they said: "OK, you roadtest that for the rest of us. If it works, we'll switch."

So I launched into Google Apps Pro. The only downside was, in order to roadtest for them, I had to use the same devices, and that includes… a blackberry. I didn't think it would be so hard to switch back from an iPhone to a regular phone (and I can't wait for a new employee to join so he can get my BB and I can go back to an iPhone) but more on that another day. I've had no problem with Google Apps.

Actually that's not totally true. The main problem has been that my partners' external IT support resisted the move every bit of the way. They can see the writing on the wall: bye bye exchange servers, license and multiple add-ons, bye bye Blackberry Entreprise Server, licences, maintenance contracts et al. We've had to push, and push hard. But we got there (and now we're looking for a different IT support that embraces this instead of rejecting it).

The second step into the cloud was the website. That may seem more natural but in actual fact most websites – though hosted in the cloud obviously – are designed and built the good ole fashioned way in meatspace. Coincidentally, my partners just released their new website. I have no idea how much it cost to design and how much it costs to host, but I suspect it's a lot more than what I'm paying SquareSpace.

I've gone for the top tier service package at SquareSpace, at a little under $500 a year. Mostly, it's because that will allow me to have a delivery system for our research embedded into the website, a secured extranet for customers if you will, complete with document sorting, search, tagging, etc. It took me probably 1 1/2 day's work (actually night's work, but that's irrelevant) to build the website. Altogether it actually took me longer to think up the structure and write the text than to build the site. 

Now you may (rightly) argue that it isn't very fancy. At this stage it's true: it's sober and functional, which is really all I need right now. But I'm already looking into the possibility once we start bringing money in the door to get a graphic designer to do a custom CSS for us and a developer to build a watermarking module for our research. All that is feasible with the package I have. 

On Monday I showed the near final website to my partners. I think the thing they liked the most was the realisation that I had full control over it and could change anything within minutes. If they want to make any change to their site, like 95% of businesses out there, they're dependant on a third party.

The final foray into the Cloud was prezi. I had designed a powerpoint deck to present the company to a number of potential customers, and there was a static slide in there which was just a matrix of topics. I needed to include that in the webiste one way or another but thought just posting an image of the slide would be horrible. I explored prezi and with about three hours of work and an additional two of tweaking, I had my solution. The cost is actually zero, because I'm using the free version, but I'm considering paying the $59 per year to be able to keep prezi's private and put my logo up instead of theirs.

So, what have I learned? A few interesting things: 

  • In this day and age, virtually all you need to start a service business you can get online. My IT costs altogether will probably be in the area of $2500 fully loaded for the first year in between the laptop, the cloud software and the broadband.
  • The scope of what you can do and the ease with which you can do it (especially with the new GUIs coming up, SquareSpace is a great example) is astounding. Incidentally, I had my mom (she proofread a lot of my content) playing around with Prezi within minutes.
  • Broadband quality matters. By and large, I didn't feel the lag too often (not as often as when I'm filling a Google Apps spreadsheet, for example) but Prezi in particular would occasionally freeze and/or take a good while to load. I have good quality DSL, and I'm not saying it was anywhere near impossible or infuriating to use it, but if these pretty basic functions can feel slow occasionally, we have a good way to go before our broadband will support business grade applications for daily use in the cloud.

More importantly, I've started living in the cloud.