Some 39 percent of small and medium-sized businesses say they expect to be paying for one or more cloud services within three years, an increase of 34 percent from the current 29 percent, according to a new Microsoft Corp. study.

The study also suggests the number of cloud services SMBs pay for will nearly double in most countries over the next three years.

None of that would surprise any of you, one suspects. It cannot have escaped anybody’s attention that the way software is hosted is shifting from local hard drives and servers to remote servers.

The study suggests that past experience with support from a service provider is a key driver of service provider selection, when SMBs decide to go shopping for a hosted service. Eighty two percent of SMBs say buying cloud services from a provider with local presence is critical or important.

But the larger the business, the more likely it is to pay for cloud services. For example, 56 percent of companies with 51 to 250 employees will pay for an average of 3.7 services within three years, the study found.

“Cloud adoption will be gradual, and SMBs will continue to operate in a hybrid model with an increasing blend between off-premises and traditional on-premises infrastructure, for the foreseeable future,” said Marco Limena, vice president, Business Channels, Worldwide Communications Sector at Microsoft.

In the past, fast-growing companies have been the best prospects for many cloud services. But the study suggests demand might now be shifting to SMBs of virtually all sizes and growth patterns.

The study indicates that in most countries, cloud service adoption is not limited to SMBs that see themselves as fast growers, for example. The study showed little difference in adoption rates between SMBs that expect to grow in the next three years (42 percent) and those solely focused on profitability (40 percent).

Growth companies want a scalable environment that can meet their expanding needs, with an affordable, pay-as-you-go pricing model that eliminates the need for over-investment in IT. SMBs that want to maintain their size, but want to become more profitable, seek cost-effective, efficient solutions that match their needs for predictability and low overhead cost, Microsoft argues.

The study also looked at adoption of software as a service (SaaS) and infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and found that SMBs that are adopting both SaaS and IaaS services are larger, more growth-oriented and more interested in additional services, such as unified communications and remote desktop support.

SMB acceptance of some sales channels as being “more logical than others” will be an important element of the growing cloud-based services business. As SMBs traditionally have bought some services from one set of sales organizations, and different services from other sales organizations, cloud-based services will bring new channel organizations into the mix.

It is not clear how business software channels and web-based organizations might find themselves with new opportunities, for example. Some think traditional “hosting” organizations (data centers) might have a role. But most think cable companies and telcos are logical new channels as well.

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