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The Benefits of Cloud Computing

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“It was something that I laid awake at night worrying about,” says Chris Sterwerf. “Wondering if our server was going to crash and if we were going to have our data.” 

As the young, second-generation owner of heavy-duty truck collision shop Fairfield Auto & Truck Service in Fairfield, Ohio, the responsibility of handling anything technology-related fell squarely on Sterwerf’s shoulders.

“Any time we had a server issue or a workstation issue, that burden all fell on me,” he says. “I found myself spending a lot of time updating computers, making sure virus scans were up to date and troubleshooting our system.”

What’s more, he had little confidence in the shop’s server and tape drive backup and often worried the shop would one day lose its decades worth of data.

“It was a nightmare,” he says. “And it was just a big drain on my time.”

That’s why, six years ago, Sterwerf made the decision to partner with Zero Hassle IT Solutions, a dedicated hosting company founded by industry professional Marvin Baker, and move all of the shop’s data to the cloud. 

“I’m always looking for good solutions, and you can see the trend that everything is going to the cloud anyway,” he says.

After switching to cloud computing, Sterwerf is now able to access his information from anywhere, run programs across multiple platforms, and more securely protect the shop’s data.

“It’s definitely lifted a burden off my shoulders,” he says. “Now, having the cloud, it frees me up to do so much more.”

Sterwerf and Baker outline how to quickly and affordably equip your shop for cloud computing, as well as the benefits of doing so.

The Basics of Cloud Computing

Essentially, the cloud is a Web-based network where users can have access to data, systems and software through a web browser, mobile application or a desktop program. It takes all of the data previously stored on your hard drive and moves it to a remote server that you can access online, eliminating the need for a hard drive. A remote server hosts and runs all the applications, as well as printing services. While data privacy is often a concern for new users, Baker says that your data is actually safer because cloud providers have more frequent backups and strong security policies. 

“The cloud is really designed for people who want to be able to not focus on the technology anymore,” Baker says. “They get to focus on the customer, the CSI and their profitability. Most people’s expertise is not with technology.”

Baker makes it a point to note that cloud computing is not a flashy trend that will disappear in a few years. 

“It’s not this state-of-the-art thing that people think it is,” he says. “All of this stuff is tried and true. It’s not a new, gimmicky trend that’s not going to be around in five years. It’s a practical tool and it’s just as cost effective whether you have two users or 200 users.”

This is something Sterwerf can attest to: In the six years he’s been on the cloud, he says that it’s only gotten easier and easier to move data to the cloud. Sterwerf’s management, estimating and accounting systems are all housed in the cloud. Baker says that all estimating, management and accounting packages will run on the cloud. Sterwerf says the only software that could not initially transfer to the cloud was the paint software and an old bar-code scanner. 

The Top Benefits

Through his experience, Sterwerf says there are four main benefits that each shop gets with switching to the cloud.

1. Access. A cloud-based network is accessible from anywhere with an Internet connection. Your desktop in the office, the computer at the front counter, your smartphone, your laptop—the information is always right at your fingertips.

The information is updated in real time, allowing a more streamlined repair process that everyone can access simultaneously.

2. Backup. With a cloud-based system, all the information is stored at a remote server and, in most cases, multiple servers in multiple locations.

A computer crash—or something more devastating to a business, like a fire or flood—would no longer pose a threat to your shop’s data.

3. Automatic computer updates. Most cloud-based systems are either updated automatically or by the data provider, so shop owners don’t ever have to worry about getting new programs or data subscriptions.

“I used to always have to keep track of all the work stations and make sure they were updated,” Sterwerf says. “That was always a big pain.”

4. IT support help. Sterwerf says that he spent a lot of time troubleshooting issues or struggling with updates or changes. Now, he can simply submit a support report and the data provider can fix the problem or walk Sterwerf through the steps to fix it. If a new employee starts, Sterwerf can simply let Baker know what the employee will need access to and he can set up the workstation remotely.

Backup Plan

While there are a number of benefits to cloud computing, both Baker and Sterwerf warn that it is important to have a backup plan in the event your Internet is down. 

Sterwerf says that both have happened to him, but through his cell phone carrier’s 4G capabilities, he is able to create a wireless hotspot, which can be accessed with any computer. 

In addition, Baker also recommends investing in a secondary Internet type, which the Internet router can be programmed to automatically switch over to.

“The way I look at it, though, is that the server could still go down if we had our old network and system,” Sterwerf says. “And if that happened, we were down for a week or longer. It’s the lesser of two evils.”

Steps to Implementation

Sterwerf says that for most shop owners, switching to cloud computing will require hiring a data provider, which provides end-to-end IT hosting and data ownership. The provider will provide all needed equipment, infrastructure, application support, operating system and application updating and support help. The provider is also responsible for integrating the customer’s existing equipment. 

There are a number of data providers available, both locally and nationally. Although there was a local provider nearby, Sterwerf says he went with Zero Hassle because of Baker’s knowledge of the collision repair industry (Baker’s family owns Baker’s Collision in Mansfield, Ohio).

After being hired, Baker and his team came out to Sterwerf’s facility and started the step-by-step process of converting the shop to the cloud: 

1. Assess the wiring and Internet connection. Baker starts by looking at a shop’s wiring and switching, which he says can often be old and formatted incorrectly. Next, Baker takes a look at the current Internet connection the shop uses. There are three Internet connections a shop can utilize: DSL, cable and fiber optic. Baker says the decision will be made based on the speed and quality desired. 

“The best connection is a fiber connection because it has the capacity to give you any speed you need to go. Fiber is only limited to how much you’re willing to buy, and it’s a dedicated resource to your business,” he says. “More than half of the business community uses cable modem connections and it works fine. Cable is fast but it’s a shared resource. That means it’s not dedicated to you and the cable company cannot guarantee the best speed at all times.”

Sterwerf says his shop started off with a DSL connection but eventually upgraded to the more expensive fiber connection so that videos, audio and pictures would load more quickly.

“By the time we did that, the cost offset was actually less than what we were paying with the DSL line,” he says.

2. Assess the amount of data. Baker looks at the amount of data that needs to be moved. Smaller file sizes can be transferred through the Internet, while more massive folders (such as Fairfield’s 10 years worth of photos) might need to be moved onto external hard drives before being transferred to the cloud.

3. Install the equipment. Baker also evaluates what hardware—such as scanners, printers, newer computers—can be reused and the number of people that will need access. That determines the number of “thin clients” that the shop will need. 

A thin client is a stateless desktop terminal (roughly the size of a desk phone) that replaces a traditional computer that has a hard drive. The thin client has no hard drive; instead, the keyboard and computer monitor plug into the device. The thin client allows the user to log onto the Internet, log into their account and access all of their data. It still contains all the features found on a desktop computer, such as applications, memory and sensitive data, but everything is stored on the cloud, instead of a local hard drive. 

“You still have the same screen and programs in front of you,” Sterwerf says. “For the most part, the staff didn’t know the difference.”

Baker rents all of the equipment to Sterwerf and charges a monthly service fee. This means that any equipment investment is incurred by the data provider, not the individual shop.

4. Convert the data. After the equipment is shipped and installed, Baker and his team will convert all of the data. Baker says that “99 percent of the time,” his team is able to convert the customer over the weekend and the shop experiences little to no down time. The team will first convert the critical data needed to function and run the shop, and then move larger files that are less crucial.

“By the end of the first night, we were already functioning in the cloud,” Sterwerf says. “It was really turnkey.”

As for any training needed, Baker says it’s non-existent.

“There is nothing different on the user’s end,” he says. “Once they log into the data remotely, it’s exactly the same as it was when they had it stored locally.”

The Bottom Line

While this might sound like an extensive investment, Baker says that annual IT costs for his typical customer are roughly 20 percent more when taking into account the monthly equipment and storage fees for cloud computing. 

“When we compare our costs to other shops in our 20 Group, we tend to be on the higher end,” Sterwerf says. “The way I justify it is that it frees me up so I’m able to do more and I’m much more productive.”

In addition, Sterwerf notes that he doesn’t have any unexpected major expenses due to a server or piece of equipment going down. And instead of that technology investment appearing on his income statement as a depreciating asset, Baker’s monthly service fee appears only as a monthly expense. 

“That’s why we’re high because we’re being charged monthly for the service. But we don’t have to spend money for an asset that depreciates quickly,” he says. 

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