All posts by David Howell

What’s next for e-commerce?

David Howell

24 Mar, 2020

e-commerce continues to boom. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), show online sales accounted for 18.6% of all retail transactions in 2019. More startling is the growth of mobile channels: WorldPay predicts m-commerce spending will overtake e-commerce by 2023.

For retailers, evolving their business is the key to maintaining market share and nurturing customer loyalty. Research from Mintel published in 2019 is telling: 86% of Brits shop on Amazon, with nearly three-quarters (70%) of them buying something from the site at least once a month. 26% of them also have Prime accounts, giving them access to more and faster delivery options.

Speaking to Cloud Pro, Martin Willetts, technology consulting partner at Deloitte says: “The rate of evolution with consumer behaviours has been difficult for some brands to keep pace with. Those e-commerce organisations that are investing in the flexibility of systems, tools, and processes, are the ones turning the challenge into a real opportunity. 

“The biggest trend is how e-commerce organisations are transforming their capabilities, so they can adapt to support consumer needs while also scaling operations as digital shopping habits continue to proliferate,” Willetts continues. “Also, consumers are increasingly expecting full transparency from brands with regards to both the sustainability and ethical sourcing of products.”

Mobile retail channels will increasingly become the focus for consumers, as they consolidate their use of smartphones. The use of digital kiosks, self-service and cashless checkouts are expanding – all using smartphones as their payment mechanism.

According to a new State of Mobility in Retail Report from enterprise mobility management firm SOTI, 67% of consumers perceive mobile technology as the most effective way to provide a faster shopping experience. Additionally, more than three-quarters (76%) of consumers want in-store staff to use mobile devices to provide a better experience, and nearly one-third (32%) are unwilling to sacrifice personal data security to improve their in-store experience, revealing bold new insights about consumers in the modern retail landscape.

e-commerce is now a multi-channel, multi-touchpoint experience for consumers. They don’t see separate channels, but simply want convenience and speed when they are ready to buy goods and services.

Channel agnostic

The question of whether e-commerce businesses should become ‘mobile-first’ is now moot. The omnichannel has cemented itself as the model e-commerce, and m-commerce is based upon. Indeed, the distinctions are disappearing.

Mobile channels will become increasingly important as a commercial space. Estimates from GSMA suggest over the short term, 1.4 billion people will start using the mobile internet for the first time, bringing the total number of mobile internet subscribers globally to 5 billion. By 2025, the estimated figure rises over 60% of the global population.

“Looking at both commerce channels separately seems counter-intuitive to me,” says Ennis Al-Saiegh, CEO of Smarter Click. “The rise of mobile traffic and ultimately the improved conversion journeys that have had to be improved for this medium, has resulted in improved efficiencies if you treat both channels as a pure ‘commerce’ channel. Treating them as one commerce channel means your brand values, user experience efforts and marketing teams are all aligned to deliver an enhanced experience.”

Deloitte’s Willetts adds: “A ‘Unified Commerce’ approach across physical and digital channels that is modular, flexible and data-driven will be key to ensuring memorable shopping experiences. There is huge potential for retailers to achieve greater value from their marketing spend, seeking to drive customers to the business from any channel to any channel. Again, with a consistent marketing experience regardless of the medium.”

How businesses will construct their e-commerce storefronts is also changing. Headless commerce separates the design of a business’ e-commerce enabled website, with the IT infrastructure that supports it. The practical advantage is the deployment of an e-commerce business can easily be multi-channel. 

Speaking to Cloud Pro, Chris Adriaensen, senior manager of solutions engineering at Auth0, explains: “Headless content is effectively the removal of the end-user interface from backend systems, providing e-commerce solutions as a set of flexible APIs. Front-end developers can take user data and content to create far more dynamic and personalised experiences across different devices and touchpoints. 

“Headless e-commerce allows for more than ‘if you liked these teabags, buy this coffee’ and means content can be delivered in more effective ways, suited to the identity of the user. Power users might get a different experience than first-time buyers, for example. With new tech-driven experiences, such as Amazon Go-style smart stores and AR-powered dressing rooms for clothing still in their early stages, a ‘headless’ approach also facilitates a faster time to market allowing retailers to adapt to new channels, technologies and use cases.”

Consumers want integrated, cross-channel shopping experiences with their purchase journey beginning on one channel and often ending on another – increasingly, their smartphones. Supporting this level of integration is a significant challenge. Here, automation can help and will expand their influence as new services come onstream to help multi-channel retailers deliver their goods to diverse audiences.

New opportunities

According to Statista, 35% of American households have a smart speaker. What’s more, over a quarter, 26% made a purchase using their speaker last year. This rapid expansion of voice commerce is set to continue. 

Data has also become a vital component of successful e-commerce. With masses of information collected about the shopping preferences of individuals, the future of commerce is personal. Brands and retailers that can make personal connections with their customers and deliver new innovative experiences will maintain and expand their market share.

Finding patterns and value in the data being collected will become the province of AI. “Though most e-commerce companies today aren’t using AI in earnest today, we expect this to change rapidly over the next couple of years,” explains Michael Scharff, CEO of AI-powered conversion platform Evolv. “We see AI as a means to an end, not an end itself. e-commerce companies should look to adopt AI to differentiate themselves from the competition, create exceptional omnichannel experiences, and enhance their customer experiences.

Gartner predicts that, in 2020, 85% of customer interactions are managed without human involvement. It’s a trend that has moved at rapid speed. In connection with mobile devices and personal assistants, AI makes a powerful tool for shoppers. Finding products by visual search or making orders via voice assistants becomes hassle-free.

And no retail business can now ignore social media as a commercial channel. According to the most recent “Reimagining Commerce” report from Episerver: “On average, one-fifth of consumers have made purchases directly because of a social media influencer’s product post. Among younger consumers, that number is even higher, with 50% of Gen Z shoppers and 48% of millennials having purchased products either directly by clicking on a post or later on as a result of the influencer’s endorsement.”

Deloitte’s Willetts concludes: “A key technology trend, in response to evolving consumer behaviours, is the need for a flexible and adaptable Commerce platform – with ‘cloud’, ‘headless’ and ‘microservice-based architecture’ often being near the top of business’s requirements list.

“These trends have led both to a resurgence in custom-built e-commerce platforms using smaller ‘lighter’ SaaS vendor’s offerings – as well as some of the larger e-commerce platform vendors re-architecting their platforms regularly to avoid being left behind.”

How consumers connect with the stores they want to buy from will also be transformed as the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G expand and mature. Using the smartphone as the conduit to reach individuals when environments become smart and connection speeds have low latency delivers massive opportunities to all businesses no matter their size.

e-commerce is changing once again. Customer-facing websites and portals will increasingly adopt the headless approach, with the smartphone now the key battleground for consumer spending. Integration is the key to successfully navigating the next stage of e-commerce evolution.

Is there still an app for that?

David Howell

19 Mar, 2020

In 2018, Apple CEO, Tim Cook announced the App Store had over 20 million developers, with the App Store itself receiving 500 million weekly visits. The app, it seems, continues to be popular: in the third quarter of 2019, there were a total of 29.6 billion app downloads worldwide, according to market research firm Sensor Tower – a 9.7% year-on-year increase overall, with Google Play downloads growing 11.4% to 21.6 billion and App Store downloads growing 5.3% to 8 billion.

Mobile access to the internet is also growing: According to Ericsson, the total number of mobile subscriptions in Q3 2019 was around eight billion, with 61 million subscriptions added during the quarter. By 2025, 90% of subscriptions are projected to be for mobile broadband.

Smartphone penetration continues to rise,” says Ericsson. “Subscriptions associated with smartphones account for around 70% of all mobile phone subscriptions. It is estimated there will be 5.6 billion smartphone subscriptions by the end of 2019. The number of smartphone subscriptions is forecast to reach 7.4 billion in 2025.”

With a massive install base of devices, is the app still the best way for businesses to reach this vast mobile audience? Mobile retail continues to expand, as consumers embrace m-commerce as they did e-commerce, with many familiar names profiting from this trend, such as Amazon and eBay, which remain the most popular sites for mobile access.

In its most recent annual ‘Global State of Mobile’ report, Comscore concludes: “Looking at a snapshot of the retail category in the US, retail apps reached 87% of the total app audience in 2019: a 16% increase since June 2017. Total audience tends to skew 25-54 and female. Interestingly, we still see almost a quarter of time spent consuming retail content on desktop, which may be due to the larger screen real estate that can facilitate a closer examination of online purchases.”

In-app purchases continue to be highly prevalent in one specific category of apps: Gaming. Research from Deloitte showed gamers, in general, will spend an average of £3.59 per month, or £43.05 a year, on in-app purchases. This rises to over £120 with the 25 to 34 age group. In-app purchases, though, outside of gaming are also accelerating.  

Consumers increasingly want integrated shopping experiences. Expect in-app purchasing, in general, to accelerate as m-commerce expands. However, care should be taken not to frustrate app users. In research carried out by Kantar Media for Ofcom, one male teen, for instance, told researchers: “I would download a free app and the next thing you know it is 69p to get to such and such a level, even though they said it was free in the first place.”

“Currently, when speaking on omnichannel, we often speak to a presence on each one,” says Sean Farrington, AVP of Interactive Development at LiveArea. “We have a native app, or two. We have a desktop app and also skill on Alexa. Each of these is unique and sadly, almost entirely independent. Technologies, such as PWA (Progressive Web Apps), Service Worker, and Notification APIs supported by personalised content and marketing, will prompt us to redefine our multichannel strategy.”

He adds: “Rather than focusing on a unique presence on each channel, we will begin to see this as a single application, unified across all the channels. This allows us to be more perceptive in how and when we engage with our customers and offers us a whole new world of touchpoints and possibilities. It will also allow us to provide intelligence when choosing the channel to engage upon.”

App fatigue and originality

With the app now over ten years old, are consumers still using the app as their primary channel for accessing services? According to research from Comscore, the answer is yes. In the UK, 86% of mobile minutes are spent using apps. Social media (88%), lifestyle (85%), and coupons and incentive (79%) are the top categories for mobile app usage.

The sheer number of apps available on the app stores has often been pointed to as an issue with regards to discoverability and why the longevity of an app on a user’s phone can be so short. Ofcom’s research suggests consumers are not ready to give up their apps.

“App users appear to have a strong functional reliance and emotional attachment to apps,” the report states. “As part of the research process, participants were asked to live without apps for a day. The absence of apps during this deprivation exercise left many feeling frustrated. Teens and younger adults, in particular, worried about being excluded from their social circle without access to apps.”

To reduce app fatigue and increase install rates, apps need to be useful initially, but the key to long-term connections is to ensure your business’ apps stay engaging and of practical use. Apps that are not updated regularly, don’t communicate with their users via push notifications, and don’t integrate with other areas of your business will be quickly uninstalled.

Speaking to Cloud Pro, Raj Bawa, operations director at JBi Digital says: “I wouldn’t consider app fatigue to be a major challenge for those using the app channel, as apps are there to make life easier for businesses. Apps go a long way in boosting the productivity of businesses, though it’s true there is a level of fatigue from a consumer perspective. To prevent such fatigue from taking place, developers need to consider providing application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow the software to be installed and maintained much more easily.”

If an app is an appropriate component of your business, making it as relevant and engaging as possible will combat app fatigue. Rob Sandbach, managing director at Manchester-based digital design agency Indiespring, says: “It’s a problem if your app performs the same task as a handful of identical apps and it’s an even bigger issue if your app does the same thing, but worse. App fatigue can be easily avoided if your app adds true value to the users’ day and does it better than any competing options out there. It comes down to user experience – you need to be constantly on the ball to protect that by measuring app performance and user engagement.”

An appy future

Analysis by Adjust shows, on average, apps will be deleted around six days after they have been installed. The highest attrition rate is for entertainment and lifestyle apps, with the best performers being in the e-Commerce, travel and health categories. Consumers want apps that not only fulfil an immediate need but that also, continue to be useful.

This approach is supported by Ashley Friedlein, founder of Econsultancy and Guild, who tells Cloud Pro: “Mobile usage is only increasing, as is app usage. It will be hard to break the monopoly of the ‘mega apps’ that take up the most app usage time. However, the success of Snapchat and now TikTok show that it is still possible to create colossal traction very quickly through apps. Alongside the mega apps there is always room for more focused apps that do a particular thing very well.” 

The accelerating development of 5G and its inherent low latency could open a new era for apps that require a constant and fast connection to the mobile internet. Where many apps in the past have been handicapped by low bandwidth, this should disappear if the promises being made for 5G become a reality for every user.

If your business has yet to invest in app development, or you are about to upgrade your existing apps, the Ofcom report offers some insight that can be used to ensure the new apps your company creates will find their audience. 

“App users stated various criteria that they felt described their ‘best apps’, including being quick and easy to use; being reliable and not crashing; performing the functions described, and having appealing aesthetics,” the report states. “When asked to consider criteria for their ‘best apps’, there was little mention of safety and security. These did not appear to be front-of-mind for participants due to a lack of negative experiences with apps.”

Speaking to Cloud Pro, Alex Froom, chief product officer and founder of Zipabout, explains: “Where do we currently stand with the native or web app debate? It’s horses for courses. Unfortunately, it was web-app capabilities that opened app development to organisations lacking the commercial capability to build good apps. The result: an oversaturation of rubbish apps. Rather than focusing on native versus web, what’s more of an issue is the ease of development and whether you need an app at all.”

LiveArea’s Farrington adds: “I think the recognition of the importance of the mobile channel, particularly within m-commerce, has already set upon us. Over the next year or two, I think the focus will be more around how a business can refine their brand, strategy, and marketing efforts to adapt to, and take advantage of, a wide new array of opportunities the channel presents us. Differentiation, amongst competitors on the mobile channel, will become the primary battleground, and it will be won by companies that put themselves in a position to understand their customer regarding their brand.”

From a business perspective, the ‘mobile-first’ approach is now the norm. No matter which category or market your business trades within, having a mobile strategy is critical. Accessing services from fast food delivery to travel, and of course, social media, the app continues to dominate all other access channels.

Is the best cloud a small cloud?

David Howell

13 Mar, 2020

Since the inception of the cloud, large monolithic infrastructures have been the norm. Azure, AWS and Google Cloud all offer almost infinite scalability and relatively low cost. However, is the dominance of the big three cloud service providers waning?

Businesses have been increasingly creating smaller hybrid cloud structures to meet their needs. By mixing on-prem and larger hosted platforms, they have been afforded greater choice and the ability to develop specific cloud infrastructures.  

However, are we moving into an era where bespoke cloud services become popular, as businesses look to create ‘boutique’ clouds – offering more personalisation and a specific set of features often linked to one service application?

Speaking to IT Pro, Nick McQuire, senior vice president of enterprise research at CCS Insights, says: “The definition of what a boutique cloud is remains open. You could argue, for instance, that a private managed cloud is also a boutique cloud, so I think we need to define what we mean.”

“I think the future of cloud services is a real mix. The hyperscalers will always be there, as will the hybrid cloud infrastructures,” McQuire continues. “Inside of these, we may see more specialised cloud services, which could be described as ‘boutique’ for specialist sectors such as financial services, or to meet specific regulatory requirements.”

The industry is already seeing a move to multi-cloud deployments: Microsoft’s Azure Arc – a rebranding of its Data Box Edge hardware – for example, focuses on the burgeoning IoT and edge computing space and is in public preview. The idea is to bring VMs and containers to any infrastructure no matter irrespective of needs of size. Enterprises with specific requirements for their cloud deployments could create a boutique cloud within the Microsoft environment.

For many industry watchers, the next battle will take place across the multi-cloud, as enterprises continue to focus on building the bespoke services they need. Already the major players are jockeying for position: Microsoft has Azure Arc, Google has debuted Anthos, IBM will run its services on multi-cloud management systems and Cisco has its CloudCenter Suite.

The adoption of cloud services will continue. According to Gartner, by 2022, nearly a third (28%) of spending on essential IT services will shift to the cloud.

Michael Warrilow, research vice president at Gartner, explains: “Cloud shift highlights the appeal of greater flexibility and agility, which is perceived as a benefit of on-demand capacity and pay-as-you-go pricing in cloud.”

Is smaller better? It all depends on the specific business need. What is certain is the cloud environment is rapidly changing. We are moving out of its first phase of development to more refined services and flexible infrastructures.

Compact and bijou

Research from Flexera illustrates how hybrid cloud adoption has expanded, with 84% of enterprises have a multi-cloud strategy. Enterprises with a hybrid approach (combining public and private clouds) grew to 58% last year according to their survey.

Flexera also revealed: “Among enterprises, the central IT team is typically tasked with assembling a hybrid portfolio of clouds. This year, while 31% of enterprises see public cloud as their top priority, a combined 45% of enterprises see a hybrid cloud or a balanced approach between public and private as the biggest focus. Only 9% of enterprises are focusing on building a private cloud, and 6% see their top priority as using a hosted private cloud.”

The multi-cloud and hybrid cloud have continued to expand to become the dominant form of cloud service infrastructure. But as we move closer to real-world deployments of 5G and edge computing, the multi-cloud may change again to become more boutique as services specialise.

CCS Insights’ McQuire explains: “If your business is a complex IT environment, then existing suppliers like IBM and Red Hat, for instance, will be able to offer you the services your business requires. The mix of on-prem and public cloud isn’t going to go away anytime soon. However, what I think we are beginning to see the first green shoots of is the large players pushing into specific industries. IBM last year, for instance, launched a cloud service aimed at the financial sector.”

Commenting on the research hic company conducted with Freeform Dynamics, Hiren Parekh, UK country leader for OVH, adds: “Our results show strong interest in working with specialist cloud providers, with 21% of organisations committed to using providers aligned to specific applications or infrastructure; 18% are committed to using specialist providers focused on particular use cases and 17% are committed to local providers who cover a specific geography. This echoes what we are hearing from our customers, suggesting demand for cloud providers of all sizes and underlining the popularity of the multi-cloud approach.”

A specific need will drive the business case for smaller cloud services. Large cloud deployments can become unwieldy with businesses often feeling they have little control. Hybrid cloud infrastructures have addressed these anxieties to a degree, but we could see more refinement in how companies buy and organise their cloud services over the short term.

A small cloud future

Smaller cloud service providers such as Vultr, Packet, UpCloud and Linode offer compact and specific services, which could define both what the boutique cloud means today and how some cloud services could be bought over the next few years, particularly by smaller businesses.

“I see a cultural shift in risk appetite which we see across the whole spectrum of technology,” says Justin Day, CEO of Cloud Gateway. “Businesses are seeking out smaller cloud service suppliers because they offer better flexibility and more agile working while also being more focused or simply better at delivering more niche services. Because at the end of the day, it’s about allowing businesses of all sizes to get the very best out of their cloud systems and leverage the very best out of those service suppliers.”

Adam Bradley, UK MD of Ekco, believes service levels are pushing companies towards smaller cloud service providers. “I think people are just sick of bad service,” he says. “They are sick of waiting for someone who knows what they are talking about to call them back, and they are tired of having to do all the hard work themselves.”

Cloud services have become somewhat horses for courses. CTOs tasked with adopting an agile cloud-based IT infrastructure have often found themselves managing what could be described as cloud sprawl – running several cloud deployments from several vendors. Businesses are rationalising their use of the cloud.

As cloud services have matured, it has opened the door for smaller service providers who can focus on specific sectors or industries. Building cloud services for these highly defined spaces is a crucial trend through 2020. In the medium term, whether these boutique vendors can remain viable faced with shifts by the large cloud suppliers towards multi-cloud and specialist cloud services, remains to be seen.

Encrypting a small business: Why remote working could be your blindspot

David Howell

15 Jan, 2020

In a business environment where cybercrime continues to pose a real and present danger to businesses of all sizes, paying close attention to how data and devices are protected is now of paramount importance. As Werner Vogels, Amazon’s chief technology officer recently put it, we need to “encrypt everything”.

There has perhaps never been a more urgent time to look at encryption strategies. Government research from 2018 revealed that over two in five businesses (43%) have identified security breaches in their systems in the last 12 months. Some of the most common attacks included staff receiving fraudulent emails (75% of those breached), individuals impersonating the organisation online (28%) and viruses and malware (24%). What’s more, security breaches on average cost organisations 894 per incident over the past year.

Legacy systems such as desktop PCs and servers generally use high levels of encryption. However, mobile digital devices often use reduced levels of encrypted security, if indeed they use any encryption at all. According to Sophos, only a third of businesses encrypt the smartphones and tablets they hand out to employees.

Then there’s the cloud to consider, which has become a new battlefield in the fight against cyber crime. As cloud adoption has increased, businesses have slowly handed off the responsibility for encrypting data to service providers that are themselves becoming a favoured target for cyber criminals.

Businesses understand that their customer data, in particular, must be encrypted. Highly regulated industries, such as financial services, have long used strong encryption to meet their compliance responsibilities, with other sectors reacting to high-profile security breaches by enhancing their use of encryption tools and protocols.

For example, the payment card Industry’s Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) has strict requirements on how merchants need to employ encryption to protect stored cardholder data. The Data Protection Act 2018 and GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) both make it mandatory that businesses take practical steps to protect customer data.

Data dispersal

However, companies are seeing that work is changing and that modern workplace practices, such as remote working, are creating new challenges when it comes to protecting data. Many businesses now operate with a highly dispersed workforce, one that still requires secure lines of communication to the office.

Some technologies have helped in this regard. Virtual private networks (VPNs) that use built-in encryption protocols are now becoming widespread, particularly across the small business community because of their relatively low cost and efficient deployment.

Yet this dispersal of employees is often a “barrier to a successful encryption strategy”, according to findings from the Ponemon Institute’s 2019 Global Encryption Trends report, with many businesses being unable to source where their sensitive data resides.

Some 69% of those surveyed said that data discovery was their biggest headache when it came to encrypting data, 42% found difficulties when first deploying new technologies, and 32% said they struggled to identify what data they should be encrypting as a priority.

For Martin Whitworth, research director of European Data Security and Privacy for IDC, businesses need to have an understanding of the application of encryption, specifically what it can and can’t do.

“It is important for all organisations to have a stance, and policy, on encryption,” says Whitworth. “However, this should not just be shelfware – it must reflect a well thought out position. In fact, one of the real benefits of developing an encryption policy is that it should drive a greater understanding of the topic, what it can do and what it can’t do.” 

He adds that even those businesses who do have encryption policies in place, these often fail to fully protect data once it has been transmitted to remote workers outside of the organisation’s firewall.

“Most small businesses are probably already using encryption – specifically encryption of data in transit, via their use of ‘secure’ web sites (SSL/TLS) and possibly VPNs for remote access,” Whitworth adds. “But they should also be seriously looking at encryption of data at rest; whether this is full disk encryption of laptops and/or smartphones to protect the sensitive data that they have.”

Despite there being an abundance of security tools available for businesses of all sizes, he believes that many of these are “off-putting to small businesses” as they are “not easy to integrate with existing applications”.

“What is often missing are the skills and knowledge to implement, maintain and operate them appropriately,” adds Whitworth, something which hits small businesses the hardest.

Understanding the basics

Despite the challenge facing small businesses, it’s possible to simplify the process of encryption, provided you have a well-defined and communicated policy across your business. Data is now your business’s most precious commodity – a commodity that must be protected.

The Ponemon Institute research found that 44% of businesses performed encryption on-premise before sending data to the cloud using keys their organisation generates and manage. However, 35% of respondents perform this encryption in the cloud, with cloud providers generating and managing those keys. Some 21% of respondents are using some form of Bring Your Own Key (BYOK) approach.

Regardless of the favoured approach to encryption, there are basic steps that all businesses should be taking. “Encryption is no longer an additional expense, it’s something you can enable on most new devices,” explains Oscar Arean, technical operations manager at Databarracks.

“A password on a laptop doesn’t make the data secure. It’s relatively easy to get access to the data either on the laptop or by removing the disk itself. BitLocker is a good start on new Windows laptops, or Mac’s have FileVault. Neither are enabled by default; however, so the first and most important step is actually to enable encryption.”

David Sutton is author of Cyber Security: A practitioner’s guide, published by BCS. His advice is provided in a private capacity and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of BCS. He believes that encryption can be turned into a fairly straight forward exercise for small businesses, but they should be aware of the added restrictions it could place on day-to-day operations.

“Most commercial encryption software is suitable (or has a product) suitable for small business use,” explains Sutton. “For file and disc encryption, there are really no cons.”

However, he adds that “for email encryption, both sender and receiver must operate the same encryption standard, which can lead to complications when dealing with other organisations who already operate different systems. On the pro side, it’s normally win-win on all types.”

How to use encryption

Having a full understanding of the data landscape across your enterprise will help you figure out what types of encryption you need. When data is at rest stored on hard drives, servers or mobile devices, for instance, file or full drive encryption should be considered.

It’s when data is in motion that encryption becomes even more vital. When data moves over your business’s network or out onto the wider internet, it must have some form of encryption. It’s likely your business has continued to expand its use of the cloud in some capacity and is probably developing hybrid cloud deployments. If that’s the case, data must be encrypted at rest as well as when it’s being transmitted.

Ramon Krikken, research VP Analyst at Gartner, tells IT Pro: “Encryption is considered a baseline control and often provides a first technical step in compliance programs. Encrypted communications, such as TLS (Transport Layer Security), provide a strong control.

“Data-at-rest encryption is more challenging,” he adds, “because the layer at which it is deployed determines how much protection it provides – it’s but a small part of a larger control set that includes monitoring and access control. In addition, encryption key management for data-at-rest encryption is a critical element, because losing the keys means losing the data.”

Of course, the quality of any encryption policy comes down to how keys are generated, applied and managed. For larger businesses, this is somewhat of an easier task despite the quantity of data that needs to be encrypted. Cryptography is often managed by in-house experts equipped with expensive hardware and software.

These resources aren’t something that’s typically available to small businesses, and investing in in-house expertise isn’t usually feasible. As a small business, you’ll likely find yourself working more closely with service providers. However, if that isn’t an option that works for you, you can call upon key management products that are provided as a service. These tend to give you more control over encryption keys, but generally, it’s more difficult to maintain full control unless you have the resources to do so.

What has become clear for all business owners is encryption must form a fundamental component of their data security policies. Where data is stored, who has access and, importantly, how data is protected when in transit and at rest, all require strong encryption protocols.

The use of mobile devices has also moved the perimeter of the security environment businesses have to manage outside of the control of their premises. Ensuring all data communications use strong encryption is now critical to meet data protection and regulatory privacy requirements.

Also, don’t forget your staff. Consistently, one of the weakest links in a security system will often be the people handling data. Ensure your business has detailed and on-going education and training to encompass the encryption tools you are using to ensure they are always correctly used and not avoided for forgotten.

How to choose the right accounting software for Making Tax Digital

David Howell

20 Feb, 2019

Many businesses faced with complying with Making Tax Digital (MTD) need to take some time to assess their current business needs, how these might change in the near to medium-term future, and figure out what technology they’ll need to comply.

The key driver behind MTD is to move businesses, no matter their size, to some form of digital accounting. MTD is seen as not only a major efficiency win for the enterprises concerned, but it also enables the government to streamline the tax systems that are in place today. In an ideal world, this would mean an online tax account for every business and self-employed person, for fast and efficient tax filing.

However, how businesses use IT can vary significantly, particularly as access to certain technologies is not always possible. Adopting MTD may be a significant challenge for some enterprises, while for others it will require little more than a few tweaks to their existing systems. The vast majority of companies will, however, fall between these two extremes.

It because of this that calls have been issued to delay the rollout of MTD, currently expected to arrive in April, something that the UK government has seemingly rejected.

Tax shouldn’t be taxing

How your business’ digital accounting systems will evolve will, of course, depend on many factors. Your company may already use some form of digital accounting software, so the question may be, does this application need to be upgraded to be compatible with MTD?

With research from Spiceworks revealing 52% of businesses are still using Windows XP, this doesn’t bode well for small enterprises keeping their accounting applications up-to-date.

There is also the matter of training and competence with the applications, especially if these are new to your company. It won’t be possible to instantly use any of the cloud-based applications without a period of training. Factoring this into your transition period is vital.

Small business owners are also concerned that their level of technical knowledge won’t be good enough to avoid what could be costly mistakes when choosing new digital accounting systems.

Peter Ford, public sector industry principal at Pegasystems, says that his company is working with HMRC to develop their front facing services.

“Digital solutions used by SMEs and their agents should offer the customer experience that allows them to complete online filing without any technical knowledge, and only the level of business engagement that one would expect any other major mandatory function within their organisation. Systems that HMRC provide, including APIs, interfaces and online services should be equally easy to use that will allow an SME to complete digital filing as they would any other regular business function, such as paying staff.”

Your business’s current level of technical knowledge will determine how complex supporting MTD will be for your company. Small businesses, in particular, will have to potentially make the most radical changes, as until now they may have simply completed their own self-assessment tax form. In the world of MTD, moving to a hosted accounting service will be unavoidable.

Understanding your objectives

Mark Taylor, a technical manager in the Technical Innovation wing of the Institute of Chartered Accountants (ICAEW), explains to Cloud Pro that businesses need to assess their requirements before choosing an MTD software provider.

“Choosing an MTD application should be approached in the same manner as selecting business software,” explains Taylor. “An organisation should start with understanding its business objectives, what problem are you attempting to address? In this case MTD.

“Next, technology requirements need to be considered. Should the application be cloud-based? Do you need to support mobile devices or need to integrate with an existing application? Once these requirements have been established, a business can start to research possible solutions.

He explains that some businesses have found success with a scorecard approach, in which each application is marked against a company’s existing systems and requirements, with the totalled scores revealing the best overall package. How a business implements this system isn’t important – what matters is that it helps to “formalise the selection process and provide more assurance that the right application is being selected.”

As with all software moves, pitfalls are almost certainly going to be encountered, yet, given the fierce market competition that is developing ahead of the April deadline, vendors will be trying to make the onboarding process as simple as possible.

“Software vendors often provide trial versions of their applications for free,” explains Taylor. “The key to making successful use of these trials is to use them with realistic data and in a representative manner. Casually playing with an application will not provide sufficient insight as to how well it will integrate into your business.”

Approaching the transition to digital accounting and tax filing needs all the due diligence you would use when choosing any new services for your business. Today, the cloud-based accounting market has continued to expand and evolve. Stalwarts of business accounting such as Sage have been joined by newer services such as FreeAgent and Crunch. What they all attempt to do is simplify the accounting and tax filing processes all business must comply with.

As each application or service is different, one size doesn’t fit all. Take your time to talk to other businesses in your sector. Case studies and information from your business’s trade associations can often shed light on the shortcomings of some applications or services you may not be aware of. Use this knowledge to make sure you purchase the right digital services to comply with MTD.

Marketing Automation Systems: A new age of marketing technology

David Howell

17 Dec, 2019

As the quantity of customer data flowing into your business continues to grow, automating aspects of your enterprise’s processes has become a commercial imperative. One key area to focus this development upon is marketing.

Your cloud deployment has already brought several benefits to your company. Whether you have a private, public or hybrid cloud deployment, the hosted infrastructure you have in place is the ideal environment to radically alter how your business uses its marketing technology.

According to Flexera’s State of the Cloud Report, optimising existing cloud use for cost savings continues to be the top initiative in 2019 for the third year in a row, increasing from 58% in 2018 to 64% this year. Others include moving more workloads to cloud (58%), expanding the use of containers and adopting a cloud-first strategy (tied at 39%) and implementing automated policies for governance (35%).

Noah Elkin, senior analyst with Gartner, tells Cloud Pro: “When you look at the momentum within the marketing automation systems (MAS) marketplace, the direction of travel is towards more cloud deployments. Most of the mega-vendor solutions are either 100% cloud or some level of hybrid cloud deployment. Ultimately, MAS connects a business with data that enables them to deliver more personalised services to its customers. The 360-degree view of a customer that MAS can deliver is now central to the development of all businesses.”

Implementing MAS isn’t just about cost reductions either. It also offers the opportunity to bring in other related technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). A report by tech advisory and investment firm GP Bullhound recently showed that $1 billion was invested into AI-related marketing companies in Q2 2019 alone.

Speaking to Cloud Pro,Oliver Schweitzer, executive director at GP Bullhound, explains: “Artificial intelligence heralds the beginning of a new marketing era, driven by the need to connect vast amounts of disparate data, uncover patterns and make predictions, which only AI can accomplish.

“AI will become increasingly integrated into digital services and marketing processes; however, human intelligence and intuition will remain critical to interpret its findings and implement strategic and creative plans accordingly.”

Three significant themes within marketing AI are considered within the report: Hyper-personalisation, branding and B2B. Personalising customer journeys is the most common way for marketers to deploy AI, with a quarter (24%) already using AI to this effect, and almost two thirds (59%) planning to do so in the next two years. When coupled with a cloud-based MAS, this technology becomes an even more powerful marketing tool.

Automated marketing

MAS has seen a massive uptick in popularity, as it offers businesses a suite of tools they can use to potentially expand and improve their marketing channels.

Explaining the reasons behind this, Melody Siefken, research analyst for digital media at Frost & Sullivan, tells Cloud Pro: “All marketing is data-driven and measurable, and in the digital environment, there is no shortage of customer data for marketers to use, ranging from qualitative data such as page views, to call-to-action clicks, and conversion percentages. There are also measurable qualitative data, such as an attitude about a product or service, product reviews, and social media interactions. Businesses are adopting MAS to try and make sense of the unlimited amounts of customer data and turn this data into actionable, intelligent leads and lead scoring for sales enablement.

“MAS also allows them to execute an omnichannel approach to reach customers from all sides, including through channel partners and direct sales, to create a seamless and consistent customer experience/journey. Tools found in end-to-end MAS act as the central data repositories that monitor and collect all customer data for all the departments in a business to use. By adopting MAS, enterprises of all sizes have a dependable and scalable tool that allows them to make sense of the many types of customer data to bring up a bottom line and show a valuable return on investment.”

For marketing automation systems to realise its full potential, it’s vital to ensure cloud and MAS services are integrating across business functions.

“The cloud and MAS integrate by building a big-picture platform that manages all customer data and parameters of communication. Typically, MAS is made up of four components: campaign management, lead management, sales enablement, and marketing analytics and measurement,” Siefken says.

“Most MAS offerings on the cloud are accessible from anywhere, and all are based on a subscription pricing model, which typically gives the users unlimited access with the right authorisation. Cloud-based MAS often have large integration libraries so customers can connect their existing software and solutions to the platform for that seamless experience. Data silos are removed this way.”

It’s also important to take the time to carefully think about data location when implementing a MAS solution in the cloud. For many businesses, data security and data sovereignty, as well as how easy it is to locate and migrate the data are major considerations. This will feed into questions about what cloud service providers and platforms are the most suitable for your needs.

For a further minority of organisations, latency is also a serious hurdle that may put paid to any thoughts of deploying MAS entirely in the cloud.

“[Frost & Sullivan] research also shows that in a few use cases with MAS and customer interactions, response times need to be in milliseconds, and so there is an increasing desire to reduce latency by computing some of the algorithms at the edge, rather than on the cloud,” explains Siefken.

When it comes to how MAS will evolve in the coming years, Siefken says that it’s moving from point and standalone options to full suites, thanks to the use of cloud services.

“Businesses can pick and choose the apps and functionalities they require to build their MAS, and this will be a continued trend in the era of personalisation,” she says. “MAS is evolving from an out-of-the-box solution to a customised, tailored fit platform. Integration is a must-have feature, especially as businesses look to connect their CRMs, ERPs, and sales tools like Salesforce to their MAS.”

Leveraging the cloud

As your business has embraced more cloud services, the benefits hosted services such as MAS has become apparent.

“We see the adoption of MAS in the mid 50% range, with another 25% of organisations planning to deploy this technology within the next two years. Projecting this forward, we will see an 80% uptake within the B2B and B2C sectors,” says Gartner’s Noah Elkin.

“When you are making a marketing technology purchase – especially when it is a major purchase like MAS, you must have a clear sense of what your business goals are. Ask yourself what the technology is expected to deliver. Also, pay close attention to the other stakeholders in your business or organisation. This is critical, as they will help integrate and maintain the system you are installing. As MAS could affect a range of business processes, MAS implementations are business-wide taking in IT and marketing.”

The cloud infrastructure your business has in place is an ideal environment for MAS. Moving forward, automating some critical areas of your enterprise’s marketing activities will become the norm. It’s vital, though, to understand that MAS touches multiple areas of your business. The most successful MAS implementations consider this. With all stakeholders working in unison, MAS could be massively transformative for your business.