For a while now I’ve been moving certain parts of my business(es) into the cloud (another name for the web or internet) where applications are delivered as a service (otherwise known as SaaS). I’ve been doing this to build a more fluid working environment and facilitate working with and in distributed teams more effectively.
The other reason was to offload certain technical support and development from myself and enable things to be done much more cost effectively.
I already had control of our websites hosted on a virtual private server (VPS), used for marketing (redesigns and developments in the pipeline), which are based on an superb open source content management system (CMS) and I’ve adopted an excellent customer relationship management (CRM) system which we have been integrating with the website, some back end applications and certain desktop applications.
On the CRM side it may be something that I consider offering as a service to customers after teaming up with the only “real” open source technology provider in this space to offer a managed solution, which is hosted in the cloud and is cost effective as well as powerful and as we use it ourselves (in a self hosted form) it makes sense. It would compliment some of the other web development, search engine optimisation (SEO) or search engine marketing (SEM) work which forms part of the marketing services I and my team provide.
If you know anybody looking for a web based CRM application for a sales, marketing and service team and would like a free evaluation then please refer them here (I will do a more detailed post about this launch).
Having used all sorts of CRM over the years when I was a sales exec / manager I’ve finally found something that is open, flexible, powerful and user friendly and is a marketing, sales and service asset, not just some management tool for interfering with sales projects and making the job of sales or marketing more difficult than it should be. The list of useless applications and bad experiences are too long to mention here but I’m sure you carry scars of your own so can probably fill in the gaps.
For the CMS / CRM I did look at things like HubSpot + Salesforce, and a few others, as there are also some pretty interesting tools coming out from the internet marketing space (not traditional technology developers) but to be honest they are not for me as they are just not open and extendible enough, although what they focus on is very good.
If I’m going to pay for something it had better be way more powerful than the alternatives which may include open source , which none of these are yet for me, but I do appreciate that for businesses with the financial resources or more established sales and marketing teams that these could be very useful tools as the lead generation and filtering along with opportunity analysis and pipeline management can be used to blend sales and marketing activities to convert more leads into sales.
Analytic and statistical analysis we also self host ourselves and covers multiple sites, split testing, conversion funnels and paths and lots of other interesting goodies to help us understand what is going on and what we need to do to improve. There are some other good resources out there which I will share later on.
Email sequential auto-responders and mailing list managers I also host myself, using a very nice and powerful application but I may change this as some of the hosted applications are becoming very cost effective and useful. The thing to remember here is not to act like a spammer and you should be safe.
I’ve also deployed a content delivery network (CDN) for certain domains to speed up content delivery for different geographical regions using Amazons CloudFront and S3 services, which I will roll out to other projects as necessary. This ties very nicely into some simple but effective caching methods, and where necessary we could beef this up even further.
All our communications have been delivered mostly over the internet and internal networks using internet protocol (IP), whether they are voice (VoIP) which in our case is a scalable VoIP telephony switch, currently with standard handsets, but I may look to upgradeable to IP ones at a later date. For fax its an IP Fax that integrates with the VoIP PBX and mobile voice and data which is using third generation data networks (3G) and backs up onto general packet networks (GPRS) if necessary when I’m on the move. It also serves as a useful backup when I’m in the office and the hard line goes down. As I’ve also adopted non geographic numbers we can point them anywhere meaning I can move location without disruption or make and receive data, voice and fax message from anywhere as if I was in the office. My mobile is effectively an IP extension for data, voice and video.
As I work on various projects for myself and others I was looking for a way to improve how I’m getting things done (GTD) so that my work-flow was slicker and more manageable as I am multitasking at a ridiculous rate over multiple projects on the go and stationary and its hard to make it work without the right tools to organise yourself and your team.
I also needed a better way of researching, project managing and compiling information on the fly for different projects which I could merge into the my GTD work-flow so it needed to have desktop, cloud and mobile extensions that allowed me to work from anywhere and on various devices and platforms with a variety of inputs, including text, photo, voice, video etc. These needed to integrate and be cost effective and I’ve now got a working flow and application(s) in place for this which I will expand on at a later date.
I am also moving our email servers from a self hosted server running Microsoft Exchange (actually an SBS2003 implementation) to another email provider after finally settling on Google Apps for this, having tried Zoho, Zimbra and other self hosted open source applications.
Google Apps is by far the most cost effective and simplest in my opinion to deploy and migrate to. Its also “open” enough for other applications to establish a useful connection. It would be difficult to buy space on a hosted server or dedicated email server for less than the cost of what is included in Google Apps so why would I even bother trying to set-up my own system. If I had stacks of servers and infrastructure (just like Google) I probably would .
For collaboration I’m using a mix of Google Apps and some other open source tools for remote meetings and presentations but nothing is yet hard a fast there.
I’ve already ear marked a cloud accounting system that I will be adopting which integrates nicely with HMRC for VAT returns etc.
The only real piece of significant hardware worth mentioning is my mobile device, which is an Android operating system (OS) phone from Google called the Nexus One which I’ve finally got set-up, albeit with a few teething problems. The hardware is actually developed by HTC, but its had some additions by Google to integrate it into their environment more seamlessly, which is another reason for choosing Google Apps.
I’m pretty confident that as Android is open source it will eventually eclipse the likes of the hyped iPhone, iPad etc. once the applications marketplace picks up speed and with big collaborations from giants like Google involved I see it gaining momentum and I’m putting my cards down on the table. However, it does not really matter as most cloud providers will be getting their acts together and providing both iPhone and Android applications because the market is demanding them.
Things to come are a VPN to establish a secure remote working environment on open WiFi and other networks, allowing me to pop down to the local coffee shop for a couple of hours and get some work done and make it productive and safe.
I also may look at increasing the data bandwidth as and when the demand arises but for now the high speed business class ADSL2+ service is fine and carries all traffic without problems.
Moving to a dedicated server (for our own hosting on the web / in the cloud) could be another move, although I would prefer a managed server if and when I find that we reach the limits of our VPS.
I will be gradually adopting more open source applications (have always used mozilla firefox for web browsing as its the best) such as open office, thunderbird+lightning for email and calendar applications which will deliver open source file formats for sharing with Google Apps and other similar environments and have played around with Linux distributions (versions) like Ubuntu which are very stable and fast. With the cloud it does not really matter what platform I use as long as it delivers what the business needs and allows us to service customers better.
For sure there are proprietary applications that I will buy and pay for (if I’m not donating to good open source projects where and when I can) but its the same old mantra. If you can offer something far more powerful and cost effective than an open source alternative then I will pay a premium, otherwise forget it.
I will expand more on this set-up soon,
Until our next tech share!
Image attribution: flickr.com/photos/54646150@N03/5062144188