We all want our businesses to take root, to take off, to take us to better places. Nothing goes anywhere without an engine and engines need the right fuel. If your sign equipment is the engine that runs your business, your sign making software is the fuel. Your business can't really get you where you want to go without the right sign software. Therefore, it's a good idea to keep abreast of the latest developments in sign software so you can accelerate your growth. To complete the loop on this tortured analogy... If you really want your business to take off, you might want to look into the latest development in software: cloud computing. What is cloud computing and how can it fuel the growth of your sign business?

What is cloud computing?

Technically speaking, "cloud computing" is simply software or data that's housed in a place removed from users' workstations. Most CRM software used by small businesses fits this description. But in general parlance, the term has become a more specific reference to web-based applications that allow users to access software on PCs and/or mobile devices via the internet. The term "cloud" doesn't refer to anything atmospheric but rather to the complex shapes drawn by people trying to visually describe the connections between networked servers and users

When did it start?

Cloud Computing Diagram
Fig 1 - Cloud computing got its name from the symbol that network engineer used to represent unknown networks or domains.

The cloud has been around for a long time. Since the idea is simply remote access to shared data, people in the tech and computing industries have been talking about it in various forms since before the internet age. But there have been several significant milestones along the way. The first of course was the birth of the world-wide web, the graphic user interface overlain on the internet that made it more user-friendly. In the 1990s Telecom companies began offering services that used the internet to provide telephony and data transfer through systems marketed as Virtual Private Networks. Just as the web built on the internet, VPN systems depended on the development of widespread infrastructure upgrades in the form of fiber optic cables that could handle the higher bandwidth required to send phone calls and business data from one region to another. This is the technology that allows SignWarehouse to receive calls that come in to our Denison, TX headquarters and seamlessly transfer them to our Lexington, KY branch. The next major moves came from Amazon and Google. Amazon had built massive redundancies in the server capacity of its data centers to make sure they could handle spikes in demand. That left them with servers that were only using 10% of their capacity. In 2006, they launched Amazon Web Services and put those underutilized resources to work hosting business applications and data for other companies. The same year, Google introduced Google Docs, an online data storage service that allowed Gmail and Google users to store data on Google's servers rather than on their own hard drives. In addition to the storage capacity of massive data centers run by Amazon, Google, and IBM, wide acceptance of smart phones and high-speed broadband internet access... all have created a golden opportunity for new web-based software applications to come to market.

Cloud Computing Pros and Cons

Besides the fact that it's the newest wave in computing, there are practical advantages to cloud computing, as well as a few disadvantages. Let's weigh the pros and cons.
  • Carefree data backup: The most disastrous thing that can happen to most PC users is a hard drive crash and the resulting loss of data. A friend of mine just suffered such an event and lost the manuscript for a novel he'd been working on for quite some time. Years of work was lost and he was emotionally devastated. If he had backed it up on Google Docs or some other cloud based application, the hard drive crash would have been little more than a nuisance. So the most basic benefit of cloud computing is redundancy. Your hard drive crashed? No problem. The Cloud's got your backup.
  • Mobile data: Blackberries, iphones, and other mobile devices have enable you to make calls, access email, and share information at any place and time an essential element of modern life and work. Cloud software brings the same level of mobility, of portable data, to your laptop or tablet. Instead of just updating your facebook status from the airport, you can check the status of your digital printer or check on the progress of a sign fabrication project on your way to the next trade show.
  • Data and resource sharing: You don't have to work from across country or across town to benefit from cloud computing. The cloud also allows multiple users to access an application more easily from inside a business. This is especially true with high-end software that traditionally comes with hard keys or "dongles". Rather than tying that valuable resource to one or two PCs, a Cloud version is used from any PC with internet access. Cloud computing can remove internal bottlenecks and enhance productivity. The other problem cloud apps solve is the potential loss of a hasp key. If you've paid several thousand dollars for Flexi Sign Pro or AutoCAD and a disgruntled employee makes off with the dongle, that is almost as costly and disruptive as a hard drive crash. With a Cloud based solution, an employee who leaves on bad terms can't possibly take your software with them.
  • Lower cost of distribution: Cloud computing makes it much easier for software manufacturers to distribute their product. There's no need to mass produce discs, jewel cases, or the aforementioned hasp key. Just upload it and voila-- instant global distribution! The lower cost makes it much easier for small startups to reach customers, thereby creating a more competitive marketplace, which is ultimately good for consumers. Lowering the cost of distribution may also make the software industry more profitable and sustainable. Lower costs and web-based distribution can also reduce delays in getting needed new updates and features to consumers, like new printer drivers. Instead of annual or quarterly, software updates are continuous, like Tint Tek 2020's window tint template updates or Microsoft's "Patch Tuesday" security updates.
  • Security: On the down side, there is a bit more of a security risk with cloud computing. Anytime you store data remotely, whether it's on the web, or at an offsite data center, there is some risk of loss or intrusion. But if you have an internet connection, you already live with this risk and probably take necessary precautions. In cloud computing, you would use the same common sense measures that keep hackers at bay.
  • Broadband required: Even today, not everyone has internet access. And some have limited access to the high-speed broadband connection that makes most cloud computing practical. As broadband internet access proliferates, cloud computing will become more beneficial to more people. But don't assume that if you don't have broadband, you can't use cloud apps. Some, like Tint Tek 2020 and Flexi 12, only require an internet connection for initial setup or updates.

Signmaking Software in the Cloud

Cloud Based FlexiSign 10
Cloud Based FlexiSign 11

Here's a selection of cloud based sign making software hat SignWarehouse has experience with.

Flexi 12: SAI's Flexi Family is the most recent and perhaps most notable sign industry application to move to the cloud. Flexi 12 has succeeded Flexi Cloud as the second generation of cloud-based Flexi Software. Flexi 12 is fully compatible with Windows 10. SAI has expanded the Flexi's already considerable feature set by effectively merging it with their SIGN.COM channel. This addition adds instant access to SAI's online library of clip art files and templates, making it easier to find and import files as you work. You can archive your files online, so secure data storage is one of the benefits.

Flexi 12 also has added features including transparent fills, a new Artwork Approval Tool, rotate contour cut feature, and new device drivers. The rotating contour cut option allows you to print horizontally and rotate the print to a vertical orientation before contour cutting. This accommodates shops who print and cut with printers larger than their cutters. And what would a cloud app be without remote device monitoring? Flexi 12 allows you to track the status of print jobs sent from Flexi via iphone and android devices. As noted above, it doesn't require a constant connection. You only need to be online for the installation, file sharing, and importing clip art and templates.

    Sign Tracker: This web-based solution was developed by an Austin TX sign shop that grew into a million dollar enterprise. They couldn't find mainstream CRM software to help manage their business, so they did what any good creative sign maker would do. They created their own. The result is Sign Tracker. It includes tools to help manage workflow, control costs, produce job quotes and estimates. It also comes with a wealth of time-saving files and templates, some of which are also available in Flexi Cloud through their partnership with SAI. If you want to give your sign business more power to go and grow, Sign Tracker is high octane fuel.

    Tint Tek 2020: Tint Tek 2020 is in some ways a more traditional software application and a classic cloud solution. Tint Tek 2020 is a software solution for automotive window tint installation whereby the cutting of the film is done with a vinyl cutter using templates supplied by the software. It's a classic cloud solution because the templates have always been stored on Tint Tek's server. This allows Tint Tek to provide continuous updates to users as new templates are created. This version of the product requires an internet connection only for installation and updates. Recently Tint Tek 2020 has added a variant that is more like a 21st century cloud solution. It's a web-based version that allows customers to begin using the application with minimal upfront investment on a pay-as-you-go basis. It includes all the features of the classic Tint Tek 2020 product, including a voluminous collection of vehicle window templates dating back over 30 years.

      Cloud computing has been around for quite a while, but recent developments in infrastructure, high speed broadband and more capable mobile devices have created opportunities for business software to become more mobile, versatile, and accessible. Cloud based solutions like Flexi 12, Sign Tracker and Tint Tek 2020 allow sign makers to break down the physical barriers to productivity, to work from anywhere and keep track of what's going on in their shops. As with any new development, there are pros and cons. But in our view, the disadvantages are outweighed by the advantages, which include lower startup cost, faster updates and enhanced productivity. If you really want your sign business to take off and achieve stratospheric growth, cloud computing just might be the fuel you need to get there.