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updated 6/8/2013 4:17:03 PM ET 2013-06-08T20:17:03

Moving your business operations like email and document storage to the cloud can cut costs, streamline your workflow and eliminate the need for in-house IT personnel and hardware. The cloud can also make it easier for remote employees to report for duty, access key information and collaborate online.

But perhaps the biggest benefit for small companies is the ability to concentrate on the business at hand and let the cloud-based service handle such worrisome IT concerns as security, maintenance, backup and support.

With an increasing number of companies offering an ever-growing menu of cloud computing solutions, choosing one can be challenging. Here are 10 essential questions to ask as you screen potential providers to select the right one for your particular needs:

1. Which cloud services do you provide?
Knowing what your cloud computing needs are will dictate the type of service or services you choose, says Nicholas Bessmer, author of Cloud Computing for Small Business (Amazon, 2013).

There are software-based cloud offerings, such as Dropbox for online document, photo and video storage. Intuit offers QuickBooks for online accounting. And there's Salesforce for online customer relationship management (CRM).

If you need more than basic data storage, several vendors offer a range of general-purpose cloud computing services, including IT networking infrastructure with on-demand access to virtual servers, applications and software. These include IBM SmartCloud Enterprise, Amazon Web Services and GoGrid.

2. What is your pricing structure?
You should only pay for what you use, says Mike Foreman, a general manager at AVG Technologies, an Amsterdam-based internet and mobile data security provider.

Also, be wary of large upfront costs, which aren't the norm for reputable cloud vendors, Foreman says. The pricing scheme should be pay-as-you go from the outset, with the ability to add services as needed. Fees can typically be charged hourly, monthly, semi-annually or annually, depending on the vendor. Pricing for cloud computing services can vary significantly, from as low as about $1 per month per user to $100 a month per user and up, depending on a company's needs.

3. How secure is your cloud?
Security should be a major consideration when it comes to storing your company's critical data in the cloud. Cloud providers should have several standard security measures in place and constantly update them, Foreman says. "You've got to be sure that you're completely comfortable with your cloud provider's approach to security."

Security measures to look for include firewalls, anti-virus detection, multifactor user authentication and data encryption, and routine security audits. It's also important to ask who at the cloud company will have access to your data in the cloud and whether the cloud provider does employee background checks to weed out potential cybercriminals or identity thieves.

Foreman says providers also should answer questions about compliance with government legislation specific to your industry. For example, if your business is in the healthcare industry, you'll want to be sure your cloud provider is compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which deals with patient data privacy and security.

4. Where is your data center and how safe is it?
The location and security of the data centers and servers where your company's information will be stored are as important as online security, Foreman says. "You want to make sure you're not doing business with a guy with a couple of servers in a spare room somewhere that could quite easily be accessed and compromised."

To make sure that isn't the case, Foreman suggests asking how a potential cloud vendor protects its data center from natural disasters, including fires, floods, earthquakes and storms. Also, find out how the facilities are protected from thieves who could walk away with your sensitive data.

Perhaps the best indicator that a cloud vendor's data centers can withstand a myriad of security threats is a Standards for Attestation Engagements 16 (SSAE 16) certification. SSAE 16 certification demonstrates that a company's products, systems and data are compliant with the industry security standards for customer access and privacy, data center physical security and data redundancy.

5. What happens if you lose my data?
On the off chance your cloud provider accidentally deletes or loses your precious data, you need to know how it will rectify the problem. Be sure to ask: What provisions are in the company's Service Level Agreement (SLA) that address potential data losses? Will the provider compensate you for losses? What data redundancies does it have in place to mitigate the risks of data loss? It's also important to ask if the company has experienced any significant issues resulting from the loss of customer data.

6. What customer support services do you offer?
Without exception, technical support should be available to you online or by phone 24 hours a day, every day, including holidays, Bessmer advises.

You should also inquire about the average response and resolution time, and whether you'll be interacting with knowledgeable engineers or customer service reps reading scripts when you call the customer help line or use a live chat feature.

7. Can your cloud scale up to meet my business needs?
As your business grows, so will your cloud storage needs. To ensure that you're choosing a flexible cloud provider, find out what additional storage capacity and other services can be offered over time and for how much. If you plan to increase your staff, you'll want to make sure that you can easily add additional users to your account.

8. What's your downtime history?
Downtime is when a cloud provider is inaccessible to users via the internet for a period of time. Naturally, the best answer to this question is never. However, even the biggest, best-known cloud providers occasionally experience downtime, as Amazon recently did during an outage that took down Netflix.

Because cloud outages can be disruptive and costly for your business, it's best to choose a provider with as few as possible. Some vendors post their downtime history logs online. If not, be sure to ask for a cloud provider's track record.

9. How will I get set up?
Once you choose and sign with a cloud provider, the next step is typically to log in to your user dashboard and begin configuring your account and adding employees as users. Some cloud vendors will walk you through how to install and set up their services, while others, such as Amazon and Google, simply provide online introductory guides, Bessmer says.

10. How will I access my company's cloud?
You should be able to access your business information in the cloud from anywhere at any time via the web simply by signing in to your provider's client login page. You can use any device to log in, including your laptop, smartphone or tablet.
 

Copyright © 2013 Entrepreneur.com, Inc.

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