By Michael Sawyer
There has been a thunderstorm of talk recently about doing business in the cloud. Cloud computing has reinvented the way businesses deliver products, allowing them to do so faster and more cost-effectively. Adapting to accommodate fast-moving consumers with on-the-fly service is how businesses are making new and incremental dollars.
In effect, cloud computing has become the ultimate steroid or performance enhancementa fast and affordable way to reinvent a business by replacing outdated practices with updated sales and service channels. Good examples of cloud technology are Intuits online version of QuickBooks, Constant Contacts e-mail program, SurveyMonkeys voice of the customer-survey system, and all social media sites.
In the self-storage industry, there are many vendors offering property-management software, online rental and payment services, lead tracking, VOIP phone systems, applications for handling phone calls and many other tools. Still, in the face of the noise, the cloud concept has been advertised loosely, and without accurately defining the what, why and how. This article delves into what it means to access the cloud, and how your self-storage business can reap the benefits of this technology. (For a great overview of cloud computing, software as a service (SaaS) and other commonly used terms, search "cloud computing" on Wikipedia.)
The What, Why and How
Cloud computing is an Internet-based service in which vendor resources such as hardware, software, sales tools, transaction programs, service accents or data-processing features are supplied to users on demand. Similar to how a utility company would supply water, gas or electricity, cloud-computing vendors provide the infrastructure to bring services to your business and customers on an as-needed basis.
Thus, it potentially reduces your overall costs because you don't have to pay for something you dont need or use. To draw an even more popular comparison, think about how your kids do business today. iTunes delivers a variety of music, videos, TV shows, movies and mobile apps straight to their devices at a cost less than purchasing them through retail stores.
In the same fashion, some self-storage vendors are investing in cloud computing to offer their products and services in more of an SaaS model than requiring a big upfront investment and ongoing fees for enhancements and other services. By not having to invest heavily up front, operators have the agility to make changes to their business and the services they use.
Today, self-storage operators have new and better ways to rent units, serve clients and organize their facility by consuming data and accessing applications through a cloud. Its no longer necessary to buy software on a CD or even check to see if your system has the required space and processing power to support it. Instead you can have immediate transfer of an application that can help operate more effectively now. And if it doesnt work out for you, the service can usually be cancelled with short notice.
Typically licensed as a month-to-month subscription, a cloud-based service is fully managed, maintained and updated by the vendor. The vendor supplies the backend infrastructure, saving the user from needing in-house servers, data-storage hardware, an operating-system license and ongoing maintenance overhead. Another benefit is the reduced need for internal IT support, a byproduct of not having to install, backup or update software on in-house computers. Your PCs will not house programs or consumer data, which means they will run smoother and be more affordable to replace if they should fail.
With the cloud, you only need a personal computer or mobile device and an Internet connection to access services and host new applications. When connected with the cloud, any consumer device that connects to the Internet can do business or interact with your facility in a number of ways.
As the Internet has set the stage for commerce over the last decade, the self-storage industry is now beginning to find successes in the online-rental concept through the cloud. While the face-to-face rental practice still dominates, newfound, incremental online rentals are lucrative. Some facilities have reported more than 10 new unit rentals monthly since doing business in the cloud.
Cloud Location Matters
Some key benefits of the cloud include data protection, fraud prevention, facility-content management and global accessibility, because all data is stored in a secure offsite location. For example, self-storage operators use a lot of forms that are typically printed and stored in filing cabinets at the property. A cloud-based document-management service can help them move to a paperless operation, allowing them to save money, run a more "green" business, and have a better handle on organizing leasing documents.
Safeguards, safekeeping and security are what separate the nice, pretty, fluffy clouds from dark thunderstorm clouds hosted in someones closet. For example, Phoenix-based IO, a company providing modular data-center technology and services, is an ideal location to store a cloud. With more than 300 days of sunshine per year, the city faces virtually no risk from natural disaster. In addition, IO provides a state-of-the-art environment that ensures mission-critical IT systems and applications are always secure, connected and available 24/7.
Because most self-storage operations are not big enough to support the creation and maintenance of their own cloud from an IT standpoint, they look to vendors for cloud-based solutions. Cloud benefits are the same and sometimes even more valuable to suppliers of industry technology because they allow such companies to develop, deploy and manage their programs in an SaaS model. This helps reduce the cost of the solution and improves the reliability of the service.
Self-storage operators are quickly learning how the cloud delivers improved sales, service and organization. Cloud-based applications also power self-service kiosks and call centers. Technology through the cloud is now a key competitive differentiator for self-storage owners. Without the best tools available, operators and their onsite management staff will find it very challenging to compete.
Michael Sawyer is the director of marketing for Phoenix-based OpenTech Alliance Inc., which develops self-service rental solutions for the self-storage industry. The company offers a full range of INSOMNIAC products and services including kiosks, call-center services, website-rental applications and automated unit-security systems. It also provides the Open Self-Storage Cloud, which hosts industry-specific software applications including online Web and mobile rentals, accredited call-center and lead-tracking software, and licensed phone/voicemail programs. For more information, call 602.749.9370; visit www.opentechalliance.com.