When people talk about the cloud it is easy to imagine a vast pool of data stored somewhere up in the sky - this connotation brings to mind great flexibility but also great danger due to the fact that there is even less tangibility to your data once it's "up there".
Fortunately the cloud is not like this at all and whilst its name goes some way to explaining the concept it does fall short by a fair way. In reality the cloud is much less romantic and is really just a way to describe the centralised storage of data and services using powerful and sophisticated infrastructure. The reason this makes so much sense is because it allows these central providers to invest huge amounts in the technologies that make IT work whilst providing the services to the end user. This takes all of the responsibilities and also a large proportion of the costs away from the end user and the businesses that use these services.
Part of the technology that these services run on involves the use of software defined systems that allow the data and services to be hardware independent - this is the reason we call it "The Cloud" and it is what actually makes it far more robust and secure than other platforms because hardware failure no longer means downtime - the data just moves to the still working hardware seamlessly.
Microsoft are at the forefront of these technologies as well. There are several key advantages to using software as a service for businesses.
One of the key areas in which Microsoft have been working is enterprise email and document management. The traditional ways in which Microsoft would provide these services were via the Microsoft Office suite (Word, Excel, Outlook and so on), Microsoft Exchange email system and Microsoft SharePoint collaboration platform. All of these packages were licenced for onsite use by businesses and as such would come with a high up front cost that included the software itself as well as licences for all of its intended users.
This model was not only costly to businesses but also very inflexible because decisions about capacity had to be made very early on and there was little allowance for those capacity levels changing over time.
Microsoft saw the gap here and realised that they needed a new way for pricing these services that would incorporate cloud technologies and satisfy the growing demands of SMEs in terms of flexibility and cost management.
Office 365 comprises a suite of services that span email and file management, all deliverable as a service on a monthly or yearly contract with no upfront cost. There is an immediate benefit here to businesses in terms of reduced capital expenditure but even more importantly with this service driven solution there is no need to back up any of the data or email - Microsoft takes care of that. There is also no longer a need to manage these systems because they are all managed by Microsoft and backed by a comprehensive service level agreement.
You might be thinking that these are obviously cut down versions of what once were extremely expensive software packages but no these are exactly the same software suites that the enterprise has been used to.
Exchange Online is the email component of Office 365 and offers enterprise email services including shared calendars, contacts and email archiving services. Exchange Online is built on Microsoft Exchange and whilst it is a fully managed solution it can also be integrated into existing onsite systems as well as providing the option of hybrid cloud solutions.
Microsoft OneDrive for Business provides secure file storage to the enterprise - this takes away the need for backup which is handled by Microsoft's cloud and also allows for seamless collaboration across multiple sites and geographical locations whilst also providing the same desktop file access experience to the end users. One Drive for Business is your new 'My Documents' that can be securely accessed from all of your devices.
SharePoint Online offers a way for company staff to collaborate on projects and share information across multiple devices including desktop, laptop and mobile. SharePoint also comes with a feature rich set of administrative tools allowing management to keep a hold on all employee activities.
Skype for Business enables online meetings to take place. This includes secure instant messaging, screen sharing, video conferencing, and large group webinars. Once again this can be used across multiple devices and locations seamlessly by leveraging the Microsoft Cloud. Learn more about online meetings with Skype for Business.
To summarise, the key benefit of office 365 is the fact that it reduces capital expenditure to zero whilst providing exactly the same enterprise services that SMEs have been sued to within house server based IT systems.
The price is extremely low cost compared to traditional on site solutions and this is without even considering the fact that Microsoft provide full data backup for all of the data and email housed within office 365 and also the support requirements are greatly reduced because all of the backend infrastructure that office 365 runs on is also managed by Microsoft.