Are clouds on your company's horizon? If not, maybe there should be. No, we don't mean the nasty rainclouds that have dominated our economy for the past two years. We mean the clouds of the computing world, where your hardware and software reside ‘in the ether’.

Well, actually, the hardware is located in the data centre of a third-party provider, and the software is delivered over the Internet. But the cloud is an apt metaphor, since the IT resources seem to be heaven-sent.

By turning to the cloud, small companies can achieve a significantly lower total cost of ownership (TCO) for their IT resources. With cloud services, you avoid the upfront costs of buying software licences and purchasing servers – a tidy savings right off the top. But the goodness doesn't stop there. Your maintenance costs for cloud services drop essentially to zero, since your cloud provider is responsible for maintaining the hardware and software. No more worries about servers that are down and software that needs to be updated with patches or replaced with the latest version. All this back-end maintenance takes place in the cloud provider's data centre.

Oh, and while we're totaling up the savings, let's not forget the cost of floor space to house on-premise servers and electricity to run them. What's more, cloud services generally cost less than hiring another employee or contracting with an IT vendor to service on-premise servers and software.

Just how affordable are cloud services? Very! Microsoft Online Services offers a Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) at astonishingly reasonable rates. For just £6.71 per user per month (min 5 PCs), you can get the full BPOS suite, which consists of four applications essential in today's business environment:

•Microsoft Exchange Online, which handles email and has the familiar look and feel of Microsoft Office Outlook

•Microsoft SharePoint Online, which facilitates collaboration and provides a central repository for shared documents

•Microsoft Office Live Meeting, another great collaboration feature, which enables real-time web-conferencing

•Microsoft Office Communications Online, a highly secure instant messaging client that provides voice and video communication through company firewalls

 

So, with Microsoft BPOS you get enterprise-class software and data centres and rock-solid reliability, all at a price that can dramatically lower your total cost of ownership when compared to on-premise messaging and collaboration solutions. What's more, you free your IT staff to work on the business, using their know-how to develop technology that can help your company meet its strategic goals.

What's more, Microsoft BPOS is designed to complement Microsoft Office 2010. Working hand-in-hand, these two offerings from Microsoft can help equip a small or medium-size company with the enterprise-class IT power of a listed company.

For more information about Microsoft Online Services, including a 30-day free trial, click here. You'll find this is one cloudy forecast you'll welcome.