Cloud computing in the modern office

Someone recently said that cloud computing is like teenage sex – talked about more than actually done. And usually done badly. Having recently set up our office in Sydney, we decided to do more than just talk about it (cloud computing that is).

As a startup company, we need technology which is cost effective and requires very little ongoing maintenance. In this vein, we implemented the following technologies for our office:

Incoming Skype Phone Number

Instead of getting phone lines/ISDN etc, we arranged an online number with Skype This means that for $80(AUD) a year, Skype allocates us a phone number in Sydney, and when someone dials that number, the call comes into our PC (via the internet). With the addition of a decent PC headset, we have telephone quality as good as any IP telephony system out there.

Skype offers all the normal features a business requires such as voicemail, caller ID and call transfers (you can tranfer an incoming Skype call to any other online Skype contact in your list).

It is also possible to buy outgoing call credits to make outgoing calls at a much cheaper rate than normal landline solutions. However, we make very few outgoing calls and our mobile phones are currently sufficient for our purposes.

Google (Gmail) Email Hosting

Instead of managing our own email servers, we signed up for Google’s premium email/online apps solution.

For $50(USD) a year per user, Google gives us 25GB of email storage per user and access to their premium online apps solution (which can be thought of as an online replacement for Office software such as Word and Excel).

Hosting our email with Google means the best engineers in the business are maintaining our email system, our emails are backed up across Google’s staggeringly large server network and we are not reliant on our own machines or a local server which we need to manage. We can search through all of our old email correspondance using Google’s excellent (and super fast)  searching capabilities.

By using IMAP to access our emails, whichever machine we use to login to our email, we get the same view (ie if I create a folder and drag emails into it on one machine, when I log in from somehwhere else, I automatically get the same view).

We are also using the online apps to store and share our timesheets, project plans etc which we can then securely access from wherever we are.

Fax to Email Service

These kind of services have been around for a very long time, but are still under-utilized in my view. No office needs to have a real fax machine these days.

We use a service called Utbox, which, for $60(AUD) a year, offer an incoming fax number in Sydney, and when a fax is sent to this number it is delivered to my email inbox as an attachment.

Conversly, I can also send an email to a fax number (via the service) which is then delivered to the recipients fax machine as a normal fax.

Online Subversion Repository Management

For all of the projects we work on, we use the Subversion version control system, which allows us to manage the various stages of development and 0ngoing changes to the codebase of our projects.

We use the online service CVSDude to host our Subversion repositories. Although the  name is a bit silly, CVSDude are reponsible for maintaining repositories for large organisations such as the BBC, Telstra and Standford University.

For $30(USD) a month, we get 10Gig of Subversion hosting/storage, we can also upgrade this at any time to increase the amount of storage.

The benefit of this solution is that we can (securely) access our projects from anywhere, all of our projects are being backed up every ten minutes, and again we are not at the mercy of a server which we have to maintain and monitor ourseleves.

Amazon EC2

Before deciding on the solutions above, I also experiemented with Amazon’s EC2 service (a cloud-based computing/hosting solution), with the idea of hosting our Subversion and email server on this service. Although it was amazingly simple to setup, and appears to be a very powerful and interesting service, the costs were prohibitively expensive. The solutions above work out to be cheaper and require less ongoing maintenance.