Many enterprise clients are seeing the benefits of adopting cloud computing services with Azure, or Amazon and leveraging the scalability of the cloud. But in the Small and Midsize Business (SMB) market we also have clients saying "I don’t want to have a server in my office anymore, what are my options?". For some, the journey to the cloud starts with a hybrid approach, by moving your email to the cloud initially, then other applications later when/if it makes sense. Some SMB offices that have migrated to Office 365 already, now only use their on-premise servers for file management, authentication, and to run a few applications such as an ERP application, or Quickbooks for example, and maybe one industry application. For many businesses running an on-premise server for a few basic needs is still a very viable and cost-effective solution which performs well and makes sense in their environment. Files aside, thinking about applications that might run on your server, most vendors are offering Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions these days, such as Dynamics 365, Quickbooks online and Salesforce online. If you can leverage these SaaS offerings, then your next step to the cloud might be to look at file management and user authentication. There are many options out there of course but we are going to focus on a few easy to adopt, and affordable SMB Microsoft solutions that can address the need to store, share, manage, and backup files in the cloud. Before we dive into options, I want to bring up one possible “bubble buster”. If you are of the mindset to “go all-in on the cloud now” one prerequisite that needs to be considered is your internet connection. This may disqualify you as a candidate for going “all in” on the cloud. Before getting excited, you need to look at what kind of connection speed you have now and what upgrades will be made at your location in the future? You can expect to pay about $300-$800/month for the type of business connection you will need*, depending on the services you use and the number of users you have. Having said this everyone is doing everything online these days, so a solid internet connection will also provide other benefits to your users. Assuming you can get a suitable internet connection, let’s look at two SMB options for file storage, and back-ups, in the cloud.
1. Microsoft Teams
This is a handy application that is included with several Office 365 subscriptions, so many users already have Teams and may not be using it yet. If a user does not have it, their Office 365 package can be easily upgraded to gain access to Teams. Teams uses SharePoint and OneDrive in the background and is very easy to use. It allows you to store, share and manage files in the cloud along with collaboration tools, such as instant messaging, screen sharing and video conferencing. Teams is Microsoft’s quickest growing application ever, and they will continually add new features to Teams. Office 365 and Microsoft Teams have world-class security built in, an uptime guarantee with vast redundancy, are integrated into Microsoft Office, and have a 30-day retention policy for deleted items. To add a layer of back up and disaster recovery in this scenario, you can implement Barracuda Essentials which backs up email and Office 365 files in SharePoint, OneDrive, and Teams. Prerequisites:
Windows 10 on your PCs or laptops
A verified domain for Office 365
A sustained internet connection with suitable bandwidth*. (you can work offline and sync later however)
Review a full list of prerequisites.
Very cost effective. Teams is included and bundled with Office 365 packages, which many businesses already have.
Brings several effective tools into one interface and uses SharePoint, a powerful document management tool, for document sharing and collaboration. SharePoint has a reputation for being complicated but Teams makes file sharing and storage quite easy.
I mention adoption as a potential con below, but I have found that once you have poked around in Teams for a few days it becomes easy to use, quite quickly. It is refreshing to some degree, vs working in Outlook all the time. When looking at the file management and collaboration aspects of Teams, compared to pure SharePoint, it is quite intuitive.
You can add cost effective third party Back Up and Disaster Recovery solutions, to allow you to always have restore capabilities, even after the 30-day retention policy in Office 365.
Permissions are not as granular with Teams vs having a mapped drive locally for example. You do not get the granular share security, as you do with an on-premise or hosted domain environment. Globally you can set up permissions to allow sharing with external organizations, but this applies to all users in your organization. You can't pick and choose who gets this permission. From there you can set up permissions by folder or file (viewing and edit rights).
This is a relatively new interface to work within, so adoption plans need to be considered.
2. Azure Storage Service
This is a service that I like to call, the “Azure mapped drive service”, because this is what it is essentially. Note that this is different than Azure Storage Server. When thinking about Azure people tend to think of it as “running a Server in the cloud” which is accurate in many cases. But Azure has many “services” that can be useful and more cost effective for SMB businesses too, without having to run a full blown “Server” in the cloud. One such service is a storage service which utilizes Azure and from a user’s perspective it simply shows up one day as a drive in File Explorer. (like a C drive or mapped drive letter on your network) Prerequisites:
Windows 10 on PC / Windows Server 2012 R2 or better with Hybrid Azure solutions
Business Class internet connection*
Requires an Azure tenant (if you run Office 365, you should have this already)
Very robust, secure and scalable
Easy to adopt for users. Azure simply shows up as a mapped drive in your File Explorer, which points to your Azure environment in the background and looks like a normal drive to your users.
More granular permissions. You can add Roles and role assignments to efficiently control users and their access, and you can manage this from the cloud.
You can add other Azure services easily down the road, providing scalability in many areas of your business, as it evolves.
You can add inherent Microsoft back up services.
Requires a sustained connection with suitable bandwidth which may cost more than your current connection. (you can work offline and sync later too)
Costs more than Teams, however Azure is more robust than Teams. Azure is a service provided outside of Office365 and is invoiced separately.
Like a utility, some costs are variable based on usage. Storage is based on what you use but traffic is based on how your users use it, for instance how much uploading and downloading is going on. The variable part of your invoice might only be 10-15% of your cost in a typical month but I liken it to a water bill. Most months I use about the same amount of water as I did last year in the same month, but if I decide to fill my pool from the tap one day I know I’ll have a more expensive bill that month. Much like your water service, you can view your “meter” with Azure too.
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* As a rule of thumb, for Office 365 mail only, a business class internet connection, cable or fiber, (with a static IP preferably) and a sustained connection of 3 Mbps up is probably fine. For file management and other services, depending on the # of users in your office and your use case, more bandwidth is recommended (10-100Mbps up/down perhaps?). A static IP may not be needed, depending on what you are doing, but a fast-reliable connection is required for all services. Port availability depends on the plan from the ISP. Nonstandard ports like 445 for shared azure folders require a certain level of availability from the ISP, usually only business plans offer these features and so this Must be confirmed as available Before implementation. A VPN can be used with any internet connection, but the faster and more stable the better. Using Azure from your PC with a Point to Site VPN (a connection from your laptop to the cloud) does not require a static IP or a business class internet, but it is recommended. This allows access from anywhere you have internet available, barring possible issues like restricted ports in a hotel connection or hotspot maybe. Using a Site to Site VPN for your office location’s connection, to Azure, will require a static IP and a Business class internet connection along with MS supported hardware. Ports like 445 for shared folders do NOT need to be available on the internet connection if you use a VPN exclusively.