Bill Jamieson: Scots organisations innovating through cloud computing

Of all the advances in information technology in recent years arguably the most transformative has been the development of cloud computing.

Picture: Microsoft

For many internet users and businesses, their first usage of the cloud was perhaps during its infancy, when all they demanded of the platform was an email service or perhaps some handy, but limited, file or photo storage space. Nowadays, that same cloud environment powers huge secure storage areas, collaboration and communication tools and potentially gives huge productivity gains not only to technologically advanced companies and internet enthusiasts, but also to businesses large and small the world over. Cloud-based services such as Skype have become somewhat synonymous with 21st century online life.

iCloud was launched by computer giant Apple in 2011. In less than two years it attracted 320 million users. The Microsoft Cloud, with Microsoft Azure, Office 365, Windows Server, and Microsoft System Center, now has more than 250 million users. It offers a competitive platform that can provide and power an office data centre, enabling users to scale up, scale down, and innovate at the speed they need whilst reducing the costs usually associated with maintaining legacy systems “on-premise”.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The cloud is potentially a massive boon for Scottish companies, connecting them with the world of global business and overcoming the geographical challenges of data and communication delivery and exchange. Whether for storing files, emails, collaborating in real-time on communal documents, keeping business diaries up to date, or simply allowing your employees the freedom to work from anywhere, the advantages of cloud computing have been seized upon with alacrity. Material can be stored on remote servers (the ‘Cloud’) and downloaded to devices of all operating systems, to share and send data to other users.

Glasgow City Council has used the cloud for delivering services. Picture: TSPL

Cloud computing can synchronise data and enable access to documents and contacts across internet devices, making day to day business faster. No more need to print out and lug around bulky document files. For workers on the move, operating from a separate office, hotel or coffee bar, cloud computing is now a necessity. This allows for anytime, anywhere working in the truest sense, and the reliability and security of the cloud means that even the most remote business can have the confidence to explore the possibilities of operating on a global scale. It also provides the means to wirelessly back up devices directly instead of being reliant on manual backups. Little wonder that “The Cloud” is becoming the world storage centre of choice.

The majority of reviews and mainstream media discussions online have focused on the consumer user experience of the service. But what can cloud computing offer for Scotland’s businesses – particularly those in the SME sector? And what are the challenges it may pose for the security conscious?

Among Scottish companies that are successfully using cloud computing is Dalkeith-based XYZ Maps . Founded in 1998 by Dr Tim Rideout and Mark Fairbairn, it specialises in geographical information systems and cartography and uses a cloud-based system to share files with customers.

A selection of maps produced by XYZ Maps

Says Tim Rideout, “A lot of the things we sell are digital products, so we simply put the files on to Dropbox and then send the customer a link to download it.” They see the main obstacles as finding time in a small team to keep the website updated and the loss of broadband connections – an irritation widely shared! Over the past 17 years it has greatly expanded its product range (now including postcode maps) as well as adding Mapping Software, Training and Consultancy to its business.

Another business to make a success or cloud computing is Vector Cloud which has been providing IT support for businesses based in the West Scotland, and their branches across the UK, since 1997.

And there is huge potential in the public sector. Glasgow City Council overseeing a population of 600,000, has taken cloud computing to its heart. It won a competition and funding of £24 million to create a platform that would capture big data generated by city activity and make it available to everyone. In human terms the goal was the creation of a system where people are much better informed about their city and inherently more involved in its decisions and direction.

Said Colin Birchenall, lead architect for the project, “We soon realised we needed more than just an online data catalogue - it’s a big data challenge. To make this possible we needed a powerful cloud-based storage, search and delivery solution to act as the backbone, and we chose Microsoft Azure because of its functionality, analytics and scalability.”

The ease of access to business information at home or in public spaces brings with it understandable reservations from the more privacy and security conscious users. For cloud storage providers, protecting customers’ data from breach, theft or loss is keeping their repeat business safe.

Storing data in and accessing it from the cloud also goes some way to mitigating the accidental loss or spread of sensitive business information. Copying files and data to USB drives and printing physical documents are all ways in which your information can be duplicated, leave your house or the company office and be transferred to an environment over which you may have little to no control. Such risks are usually mitigated by businesses using a programme of staff education. With the cloud, access and encryption systems can be simply put in place ensuring that data is only ever available to those who need it.

A big issue in the world of cloud computing has been the rapid development of innovations and improvements and ensuring that these are compatible across competing devices and systems. When making any move to the cloud, compatibility with existing hardware is always important and most cloud companies are making huge efforts to ensure their services are usable across a multitude of devices. Earlier this year Microsoft updated its Office apps for the iPad and iPhone to support Apple’s iCloud storage service. The changes were part of a larger move by Microsoft to open Office to third-party cloud storage providers, an initiative called the Cloud Storage Partner Program, and this year has also seen updates to Office for Mac, allowing a consistent experience across different operating systems and devices.

Scottish cloud computing case study: Graham’s the Family Dairy

IT MAY have maintained the same family-business ethos since Grandpa Robert and Isabella set up their Bridge of Allan farm with 12 cows more than 75 years ago, but Graham’s the Family Dairy isn’t one for standing still when it comes to technology.

Since it began in 1939, the family firm has grown to become one of Scotland’s largest independent milk producers, employing 500 people and enjoying annual sales of almost £90 million.

With the company’s two processing facilities receiving around 700,000 pints of milk and hundreds of drivers making thousands of deliveries every day, easy, immediate communication and co-ordination is essential. That’s where cloud computing comes in.

“Our IT partner, IA Cubed, knows what technology solutions will deliver real business value,” says managing director Robert Graham. “When we wanted to improve how we communicate and collaborate across the business, IA Cubed introduced us to Microsoft Office 365.

“Everyone loves the anywhere, anytime, any communication that we have with Office 365. It’s a perfect match for the spontaneous, personal contact style that makes our family business work,” he says.

“Our sales manager uses presence and instant messaging to connect with account managers on the road, so he’s no longer frustrated by gaps in communications that could delay solving customer-satisfaction issues.”

And, perhaps surprisingly, Graham has found that cloud-computing technology has strengthened the sense of family, right across the business. “My mum is all over [business social network] Yammer. When she sees a photo of a nice display of our products, she sends ‘Well done!’ messages to the reps. It adds to the feeling of being one big family,” says Graham.

This article is an introduction to, and explanation of the potential benefits of the cloud. Businesses and other organisations can obtain more information by searching online - including the Cloud Confidence eBook linked to below

• This article was produced in partnership with Microsoft