Many cloud computing services, including email, online bookkeeping and more, can be accessed anywhere via smartphone.

Most people use cloud computing on a daily basis without realizing it. Typing a query into Google via a home PC sends your words to a Google data center, which finds the results and promptly returns them to you, no matter where on the planet you’re located.

“The cloud,” as it’s known colloquially, also holds numerous advantages for several industries, including horticulture. Greg Lafferty, a computer and software specialist with Practical Software Solutions, has been plugging independent garden centers and other related businesses into the cloud since 2006. Lafferty points to remote access capabilities, data storage and loss prevention as major benefits of cloud computing technology.

What exactly is the cloud? As explained by Lafferty himself at an educational event during the July Cultivate’17 trade show, cloud computing is hardware and software provided as a service by another company and accessed over the internet. For example, creating a spreadsheet on a web-based Google document uses software running on a PC at a Google data center, as opposed to a Microsoft Word document that’s only reachable via your home or office computer.

“The cloud is up all the time, and you don’t have to hold [computer] hardware on-site,” says Lafferty. “You could use a phone, iPad or desktop PC, but you’re not going to need a server room or any kind of sophisticated networking hardware. Your data is stored in a server farm somewhere.”

Garden center retailers utilize the cloud for all levels of their business, Lafferty says. Google Mail or Office 365 webmail are some of the more rudimentary applications available. Cloud-based infrastructure, such as replacing a phone system with voiceover IP, represents the next rung up the cloud computing ladder. Growers and retailers large and small can also put entire business systems in the cloud.

“Small businesses do it with QuickBooks — there’s a small fee, and they’re up and running in minutes,” says Lafferty. “Big growers can access certain applications in the cloud to run their entire business, but there’s a risk if they’re in an area that doesn’t have internet connectivity.”

The ability to retrieve information from practically anywhere is particularly advantageous to garden center owners with more than one location. Deploying new applications across a system is easy and straightforward, requiring no testing or installation. Disaster recovery and data preservation are the primary benefits of this 24/7 accessibility, Lafferty notes.

“If your data is on a server in Miami (during a hurricane), that’s a bad place to be,” Lafferty says. “But Amazon’s web services have data centers around the world allowing you to access your information.”

While integrating a computer into a bigger network represents a security risk, Lafferty says there are more attractive hacking targets than the average garden center. Meanwhile, he will continue to “demystify the cloud” for IGCs still uncertain of its viability.

“Technology can be overwhelming because it moves at a faster pace than most people understand,” says Lafferty. “(IGCs) need to understand their options.”

Douglas is a Cleveland Heights, Ohio-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Garden Center, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Crain’s Cleveland Business and Fresh Water Cleveland.