The truly portable office is not only possible, but is quickly becoming the norm for many businesses. Handheld devices were a big step toward the reality of working anywhere, and now cloud computing has removed the final barrier. With project management software hosted in the cloud, you can have everything you need at your fingertips, anywhere you happen to be.
Of course, every technology has its advantages and drawbacks. In this article, we'll take a look at how companies can move their project management into the cloud, who can benefit, and what pitfalls still remain for this lofty software solution. (For some background reading, check out Project Management 101.)

Project Management Software, Meet the Cloud

Project management software coordinates and automates many of the more tedious functions of managing projects. Most of these software programs include graphs and Gantt chart generation, task assignment, time sheets and milestones. More advanced versions can also regulate resources, monitor budgets, track expenses and calculate costs.

So what about the cloud? This relatively new method of working involves using programs and storing data through an Internet connection. Cloud software is hosted by the provider on remote servers, rather than being physically installed on a company's machines. Microsoft SkyDrive, Dropbox and your Amazon Kindle digital library are examples of cloud storage. (To learn more about the overall benefits of cloud computing, read A Beginner's Guide to the Cloud: What It Means for Small Business.)

The Benefits of Cloud Software

Cloud software comes with plenty of advantages. One of the primary benefits for project management is super-easy sharing. Because the software is hosted in the cloud, an entire business team can access the most recent tasks, schedules and progress updates anytime, which makes cloud software ideal for travel and real-time collaboration.

Speaking of access, another great advantage to cloud software is portability. An Internet connection is all it takes to access the program anytime, anywhere, from any device, including a PC, laptop, smartphone or tablet.

There's also cost and time to consider. Traditional installed PM software can cost thousands, and may require hardware upgrades. Installation and upgrades are not only expensive, they also slow deployment. Cloud software, on the other hand, doesn't require installation, just a login and password to access the latest version of the software. The pricing structure is also much easier on a company's budget, as most cloud project management software is sold as subscription-based Software as a Service (SaaS). This means low monthly payments instead of hundreds or thousands upfront. In addition, most project management software doesn't require a long-term commitment.

In a nutshell, getting on the cloud deals with the following challenges, which face all kinds of companies, whether they work in architecture, construction or telecommunications:

  • Distribution delays, time-zone problems
    With cloud service, everyone can gain access to company data from a laptop, PC, smartphone or tablet from anywhere there's a reliable Internet connection.
  • Project collaboration
    Forget cumbersome emails, employees can work on a project over the cloud and submit changes that will be available to the rest of the group in minutes. This allows disparate employees to work in near real time, just as if they were in the same room.
  • Backup
    By having documents in the cloud, companies are protected against hardware and software failure.
  • Unlimited storage space
    The cloud never runs out of space and is accessible from almost anywhere. This allows companies to archive files, allowing team members to continue to access them in the future, even remotely.

What's the Risk?

There's always a catch, right? Despite its strengths, cloud project management software does have a few disadvantages. Chief among them is security, which is an inherent risk for any online transaction. (Read more about security risks in The Dark Side of the Cloud.)

Ever since cloud software began to grow in popularity, companies have cited security as a primary concern. After all, using the cloud means storing all of a company's data - which may include trade secrets, sensitive customer data, and company information - on someone else's servers. Those servers could be vulnerable to hackers, viruses, or even natural disasters or physical theft.
Fortunately, cloud software vendors are aware of these risks, and most use the best available security to protect their servers and their customers' data. After all, without satisfied customers, cloud providers wouldn't be in business. In addition, cloud security has improved over time, and is likely to continue to do so as cloud providers come up with new solutions to protect their clients' data. Even so, companies should find out what security procedures and protocols are in place before subscribing to any cloud software service.

Downtime is another potential problem. If the cloud provider runs into technical problems, its clients will not be able to access their data. According to the International Working Group on Cloud Computing Resiliency, the uptime of cloud providers ranged between 99.6 percent and 99.9 percent, for an average of 7.5 hours of unavailable time per year. This sounds pretty good, but IWGCR states that it's a long way from the 99.99 percent reliability that's required of a mission-critical system. Many large cloud software vendors- and even some smaller ones - have uptime guarantees, so companies should look for one that carries the least risk. And of course, the most crucial data should also be backed up in-house.

Where Cloud PM Software Works

While large corporations tend to stick to the more traditional installed PM software, cloud versions are being embraced by companies that lack million-dollar IT budgets. The low initial costs, minimal or non-existent IT infrastructure investment, pay-as-you-go rates and anywhere access of cloud software is ideal for:
  • Startups and entrepreneurs
  • Small and mid-sized businesses
  • Virtual companies with geographically diverse teams
  • Freelance project managers
Of course, not all project management software is created equal. Companies will need to find software with features to meet their specific needs, and avoid extra bells and whistles that can drive up the subscription price.

A Little Research, an Excellent Tool

Cloud project management software can be an excellent tool for many companies. It can save time and money on project management, and provide the convenience and flexibility of working in the cloud. As a newer technology, cloud project management still has some pitfalls to overcome. But this service is increasingly becoming essential for many types of businesses, which will drive the innovation and improvement required to perfect this tool in the coming years.