Moving a small business to the Cloud

Early this year (2023) we began working for Astral Artists, a talent agency for upcoming jazz and classical music performers. Astral Artists is actually a nonprofit, which like most small businesses has to be really careful with expenditures.

Astral Artists, with only seven employees, is too small to have its own internal IT staff. Tech work had fallen to either an operations manager, or occasionally to an outside consultant who typically worked only a few hours a year. Not enough to make any substantial changes or improvements. So many Astral employees were using ancient (6+ years old) computers, and they all were accessing files on an on-prem Mac G5 file server. G5’s were last sold in 2006, so we’re talking pretty old. It’s a credit to Apple’s production quality, I suppose, that it was still running fine. Unfortunately, like a lot of small business backup out there, the backup was unreliable and indeed hadn’t been tested for many years.

Apart from being dangerously old and unsupported, this file server created another difficulty. While Astral had VPN capability, it also was old, unreliable, and hard to use. As a result, for remote access Astral staff typically copied active files to Dropbox or Google Drive. And as a result of that, Astral’s files were everywhere. They were very careful not to let multiple inconsistent copies of a file remain, but that in itself was also an inconvenience.

I want to pause here to make a point: lots of small businesses have old tech. Lots of them know about Software as a Service, and like Astral, most of them are using Cloud services like Google Drive, Dropbox, and Microsoft OneDrive and Sharepoint. But to commit to using Cloud services primarily or exclusively takes significant effort and some skill, which many of them either don’t have or aren’t confident about. Without regular IT support that’s able to help with strategic decisions, they struggle to get off that old infrastructure like their G5 servers, and they get used to consistent irritations impeding their workflows and damaging their productivity. That is, they don’t fix things, they just come to believe things are always broken, and they can lose sight of how much better work can be. Astral’s new leadership was experienced enough to understand how much better things could be, and asked Concrete Computing for help.

After some investigation–conversations with the staff and research into the operation of the VPN, etc.–it was clear to us that Astral Artists needed a few strategic changes:

  1. They needed new computers, and an understanding that computers should be replaced every four years or so. Further, these computers should be laptops, light enough to be carried on a daily basis to support the new normal of hybrid work, but powerful enough to serve as desktop replacements (with external monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and a stand for a two-display standard desk setup).
  2. They needed to get away from the VPN and build remote-work operation into their standard operating procedures. That is, it should be no harder to work from home than from the office.
  3. They needed to get rid of the file server and consolidate files under one Cloud-based file service.
  4. Dropbox should be that service–primarily because of their frequent collaboration with outside contractors, partners, and vendors. Dropbox is still the easiest to use when it comes to sharing with people outside the organization.

With that understood and agreed by Astral, we wrote a quote and performed the work. Every Astral Artist employee has a powerful M2 Macbook Pro and all their files are migrated to Dropbox. The server sits idle; in fact it’s turned off as a test of the full completion of the file transfer. Two months later it’s ready to go to the recyclers or to eBay. Project concluded successfully.

Another important benefit of this project: Astral is already a mostly-remote business. If they choose to do so, nothing in their technology would stop them from going office-less and zeroing their single biggest operational cost.

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