Companies often are faced with IT problems that affect productivity, morale and even security. ©Thinkstock.com
When a business owner or CEO hears the IT people talking about pain points, pipes and the cloud, this may be the gist of their conversation: “We could fix these pain points with a bigger pipe, and we could afford a bigger pipe if we spent money on the cloud rather than investing capital on hardware in our backroom.”
Pain points, pipes and the cloud are actual terms that were used repeatedly by IT professionals in interviews with the Business Journal. Here are explanations of this technology-speak that will enable the CEO to understand what’s going on:
Pain points are problems businesses have to deal with frequently in the use of their information technology. They can range from email issues and downloading from the Internet to computing/software processes that run too slow or sometimes crash — or do anything else that’s a pain.
Pipes refer to fiber optic cables, but don’t use the term “fiber optic” when speaking to your IT person because you may be corrected: It’s just “fiber,” as in “Fiber is an excellent way to connect with the cloud.”
Ah, yes — the cloud. The cloud really isn’t all that mysterious, and obviously it’s not up in the sky. It’s actually just a data center where a business can access servers and other hardware and software for a monthly fee.
Both Mark Lardieri of software development firm CQL and Marnie Johnson of Infusion Communications Group said their clients’ “pain points” are a high priority in their work.
“We deal in pain points with customers,” said Lardieri, president of CQL, a GR-based company that has been in business for 20 years and employs 35.
Probably every business has experienced some frustration with the computer system it uses, and sometimes the “pains” are in the software. When Lardieri is traveling, he often engages other business travelers in conversation, trying to learn what their pain points are.
“We can alleviate pain points simply by understanding what (the client) is trying to get to,” with their software, he said.
Infusion Communications is a much smaller company — basically, Johnson and a few associates. They function mainly as agents on behalf of their clients who need Internet and voice/data services from the carriers.
Johnson also serves as the president of the West Michigan Technology Association.
As an agent, she spends time with a client to focus on identifying the needs of the business — and also “the pain points. We’ve got to find those things out,” said Johnson.
She defines the pain felt by management as “what’s keeping you up at night” in regard to the company’s IT.
“We help clients get to the cloud,” said Johnson, and there is a silver lining in that cloud that appears to be growing bigger and brighter every day.
“We’re definitely still selling (Internet) carrier services, but it’s a lot of fiber. It’s almost like a fiber explosion,” said Johnson. “Fiber pricing is starting to be more user-friendly.”
Fiber allows a business to do more through cloud services than standard cable because it is much faster, allowing much faster downloads of data.
Cable is virtually everywhere across urban America so it’s cheaper, but fiber keeps expanding across the landscape and its pricing is becoming more competitive.
Moving up in fiber service is becoming more attractive, too. Switching to a 10-meg pipe from a 3-meg pipe is not going to cost the business three times as much money, according to Johnson.
So what’s so great about the cloud?
Businesses with a sufficiently large fiber connection can go to the cloud for, say, their Quick Books data. “So all the data is stored offsite,” said Johnson.
That’s an immediate benefit because IT data storage is a growing problem at many businesses as their data keeps accumulating over the years — and it’s not just business transactions or employee records.
Johnson said some companies are turning to cloud servers for their email service “because most people don’t delete email. That takes a lot of storage” over time, and so email is “something IT folks don’t mind letting go” to the cloud.
Cloud storage is probably more secure than stored data is at many companies, especially small businesses. Johnson has seen many businesses with lots of IT equipment on premises: If the building burns or the power fails, then what? Recovery of business processes is much easier and quicker if it’s in the cloud.
Hackers can break into the cloud, too, of course, but how does that compare to XYZ Co., the typical business with data stored on site?
“If they can get into Sony or Target, they can probably get into XYZ Co.,” said Johnson, no matter what kind of security it has.
“Are you more at risk with stuff sitting there at your company, or at a data center that has a lot of bells and whistles from a security standpoint?” she asked.
Catherine Lazarock of Simplicity Communications said, “Technology is becoming easier to use because of the cloud.”
“Cloud,” she said, is “an ambiguous, confusing word, but the bottom line is, it’s really shifting expenses from upfront hardware to monthly lower-cost expenses” for the same services.
The cloud is “changing technology in the way we access it and the way we handle it, and becoming less expensive,” added Lazarock, who founded Simplicity Communications in 2007 and is about to hire her sixth employee. She is past president of the West Michigan Technology Association, whose members are IT professionals from scores of companies in the area.
Internet access prices are becoming more affordable, which means some companies can afford to spend more on bigger Internet pipes, said Lazarock.
At the same time, the cloud market is getting more stable as more services become accessible via the Internet — “if you have really good fiber Internet,” she said.
By using cloud servers, she said, businesses are “not having to invest in hardware” on their premises. An example would be paying $100,000 for a new phone system when a phone system can be leased from the cloud for a few hundred dollars a month.
Lazarock said there has been an actual shift in the management of technology departments at some companies, calling it a “huge transition in the industry right now.”
“Technology departments are starting to be headed up by people with finance backgrounds,” she said. Some CIOs may now be reporting to CFOs because of the shift in expense that is possible within IT.
“Before you invest in any hardware — phones, servers, anything — make sure you need to buy that” because it might be available at a better price on the cloud, said Lazarock.
Cloud-based IT can also allow a company to be more flexible in responding to market changes or changes within the company itself, and its scope of operations or number of employees.
On the cloud, Lazarock said, “You don’t have to pay for what you’re not using, and you can make (your use of it) go up and down as you need it.”
After the cloud, the big issue in IT is security, and not just protection from hackers but also viruses and other forms of malware.
Mike Eng, a sales manager at SourceIT Technologies, said 60 to 70 percent of business transactions today involve use of email. Organizations with extremely sensitive information contained in their email traffic — such as health care, banks and law firms — should be using an encrypted email solution. Encryption is a second line of defense; the first is basic safeguards to prevent email from being intercepted, but if it is and it is encrypted, there is still protection.
Eng said some effective brands of email encryption include Trend Micro and ZixCorp.
“Make sure there is an anti-spam solution” for email systems, added Eng, because many office workers now complain about how much time it takes to delete the overnight spam.
Minus Spam is a program described by Eng as inexpensive but that allows users to “teach” it which emails are permissible.
In the world of software, Lardieri said companies are pushing for “data visualization” so they can understand their data more readily and in ways that can more clearly indicate just what is happening.
Companies are always looking for any metrics they can use to understand the new trends in their market before the competition gains that understanding, said Lardieri.
He predicts the next big trend in commerce will be “gamifying an experience.” Online shoe customers, for example, want their shopping and ordering processes to move quickly and easily — like playing a game online.
The millennials, in Lardieri’s opinion, are “beginning to age into a consuming population. They want their experience to be very quick. They’ve grown up in the world of technology.”
Lardieri said there is a lot of growth taking place in the software industry; in fact, he said there are three jobs available right now for every qualified software developer.
“This is about as hot of an industry as there is,” said Lardieri.