But the broader and deeper that selection becomes, the more challenging it is for SMBs to wade though their options. Here are seven things to help guide your decision...
- What is the provider’s business history? Cloud is a rapidly growing market, which is why so many providers are parachuting in. It’s important to look at not only how long a prospective provider has been in business, but also which business. For example, if it’s offering hosted PBX services, does it have years of experience providing telecom solutions for businesses, or is it a newcomer to telecom? You don’t want the provider learning the ropes on your nickel.
- Does the provider have a good track record with companies your size? Many cloud providers, particularly telcos, historically have focused on large enterprises because they perceive that market segment as being the most lucrative. With that segment now saturated, many of them are turning their attention to SMBs. Focus on providers that have a demonstrated ability to meet the unique needs of smaller organizations, such as flexible product pricing and packaging, and adequate support for companies that have little or no in-house expertise with IT or telecom. Avoid one-size-fits-all solutions ported from the large-enterprise market. Finally, ask for reference accounts.
- Are the services reliable? For example, does the provider have multiple data centers that are widely dispersed geographically, with multiple broadband providers serving each one? That redundancy makes it far less likely that a hurricane, flood or other disaster will disrupt your business.
- Is it financially stable? Hardware, software and connectivity all affect reliability, but so does the provider’s ability to pay its bills. Does it have enough customers to stay in business? What are its debt and revenue like? Don’t be shy about asking. After all, you’re only betting your business on their ability to run theirs.
- Are the services secure? What kind of surveillance and other physical security does the provider have at each of its facilities? Does it implement security patches and updates as soon as its vendors release them? Can it meet any regulations and best practices that your industry requires? Is it willing to undergo periodic security audits by third parties? These kinds of questions should keep the provider, not you, up at night.
- Will the provider be there for you? How fast can you get a person on the phone when you’ve got a question or a problem? What’s the average time for resolving issues? It’s tough to give your customers a straight answer when you can’t one.
- Where will your data be? Between widely dispersed facilities and hosted providers outsourcing some of their needs, your data could be literally anywhere on earth. Knowing at all times where it’s supposed to be helps you recover it faster during outages or when you want to switch providers.
Hosted telecom and IT are great opportunities for SMBs to get access to technologies they otherwise couldn’t afford to buy and manage. But navigating the cloud market takes time and savvy. Proceed carefully, and you’ll come out ahead.
Ari Rabban is an IP communications industry veteran, with specific expertise in the start-up environment, moving companies from concept to operation. He joins Phone.com from Pulver Ventures, an incubator for new IT companies, where he served as managing director and vice president. Previously, Ari served as vice president of corporate development and marketing for VocalTec Communications, the VoIP market pioneer and developer of the first Internet phone.