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Colin Graham is an architect turned start-up entrepreneur who has developed FastOffice, an architecture and design digital asset exchange that is cloud based.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Not too long ago, most organizations saw the cloud as a storage solution – a place to park their data on the cheap. That’s no longer the case.

“Cloud is not a destination. It’s a multitude of technologies that are evolving and that create new opportunities,” says Jennifer Jackson, technology and cloud first lead for Canada at Accenture. “When a company commits to going to cloud, they’re really committing to continuously reinventing themselves.”

Accenture refers to this idea as the “cloud continuum,” a range of capabilities that open up new business opportunities that would previously have been impossible or prohibitively costly.

When a company commits to going to cloud, they’re really committing to continuously reinventing themselves.

Jennifer Jackson, senior executive at Accenture

That lesson – and cloud adoption in general – has been slower to trickle down to small and medium enterprises, or SMEs. But that’s changing fast as the benefits of the technology, and a dispersed post-pandemic workforce, force a faster change.

“We had expected this cloud journey to last at least six to eight years,” says Ms. Jackson. “Now, we’re expecting it to be three.”

Using the cloud to collaborate in real time

Toronto-based FastOffice, founded in 2018, has moved quickly along the continuum. Founder and architect Colin Graham wanted to solve a common problem for landlords and brokers: the relatively slow pace of putting together and comparing potential layouts for new office spaces.

“What would often happen is, by the time we delivered this layout to the tenant’s specification, they’d move on – and I’d get blamed,” he says. “So I started looking for alternate ways.”

FastOffice employed unique 3D-visualization tools that clients can use to quickly represent and redesign office layouts, virtually dropping in furniture and other products. But there was a problem: Fast Office was still too slow. The company sold its products by download and CD-ROM, and clients used it on their own computers. But that meant FastOffice was constantly dealing with troubleshooting client hardware problems and wrangling the many versions of its software out in the world.

In late 2019, FastOffice switched its operating environment to cloud provider Amazon Web Services (AWS) after realizing more clients were moving away from installing software on their computers. Instead, they connected to a new cloud-based platform via a web browser.

The result wasn’t just a faster, easier-to-use product, but an opportunity to introduce new products and services previously impossible.

For example, FastOffice can track what clients are looking at in real-time, providing instant costing to clients on everything from chairs to a sheet of drywall. It also works reciprocally: Before the pandemic, Mr. Graham says the company saw growing demand for smaller workspaces. That trend has reversed, with clients looking for more breathing room (literally) in their offices.

FastOffice was able to get a handle on that trend before customers even placed orders. “That’s because we’re seeing clients putting together these layouts in real-time,” Mr. Graham says, “and that provides instantaneous feedback to manufacturers and furniture dealers about what people want.”

Another benefit is how seamless FastOffice’s cloud platform is with a dispersed workforce. The company’s 12 employees live in Toronto, New York, Frankfurt and the Indian city of Chennai. The company chose not to renew its Toronto office lease in 2020.

Hybrid work is driving cloud adoption

According to Eric Gales, AWS Canada’s country manager, the rise of remote work has been a significant factor driving SMEs to the cloud.

“I doubt many business owners before COVID said, ‘Hey, let’s all try working from home,’” he says. “And pre-cloud, it would have been much harder to make that switch very quickly because it would have meant standing up a huge amount of IT infrastructure on your own.”

Having access to cloud infrastructure – rather than setting up their own server farm – has also provided greater flexibility for businesses that saw surging demand amid the pandemic, such as Calgary-based Kidoodle TV. The streaming service, which focuses on kid-friendly “safe” streaming, saw its audience surge by 3,000 per cent in mid-2020.

“It was an unfortunate time for society; it was a boon for companies like ours,” says Daniel Riddell, Kidoodle’s chief technology officer. “But if we had been dealing with a traditional hardware-based infrastructure, it would have been multi-month cycles just to order the hardware and get it into place.”

If demand for streaming entertainment declines post-pandemic, a company like Kidoodle could theoretically jettison some of its cloud costs much more easily than getting rid of its server farm.

There are huge impediments to greater cloud adoption. According to a 2021 Accenture report, these include security concerns, technological complexity and issues around data sovereignty.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Hurdles and hesitation with cloud adoption

Still, there are huge impediments to greater cloud adoption. According to a 2021 Accenture report, these include security concerns, technological complexity and issues around data sovereignty (i.e., concerns that data stored in cloud infrastructure outside of Canada could be subject to foreign laws).

While the concerns are legitimate, Ms. Jackson says they’re being rapidly addressed. The growth in Canadian data centres is making data-sovereignty concerns more manageable, she notes. And, as far as security, major cloud providers offer robust security suites – typically, the weak security link remains with the company’s own security architecture, where it interacts with the cloud.

That points to the biggest problem: a lack of talent in the cloud ecosystem. “The inability to find employees who are skilled in these areas is big right now,” Ms. Jackson says. “Getting people ready for the cloud, retraining, is one of the biggest issues right now.”

Still, SMEs may find it riskier in the long run not to confront those challenges.

“Every business, large and small, is collecting more and more data, and cloud services give them more and more potential to do something with that data,” says Mr. Gales of AWS. “That means an ability to apply high-level services like AI and machine learning and much more sophisticated services. In the past, that was only available to big organizations, and SMEs that don’t take advantage risk falling behind.”

Under Mr. Graham, FastOffice is certainly not planning on falling behind. Instead, it’s developing a new product called Archie, an AI program that can create, within seconds, 3D digital “twins” of actual office spaces based on floor plans.

The idea is to create a “hybrid” office environment in which in-person employees can interact with employees working remotely, represented by tablets or other digital tools in the physical space.

And though FastOffice remains a small business, Mr. Graham has no small ambitions.

“The opportunity here is to create digital twins of the 2.8 trillion square feet of built space in the world,” he says. “And when you apply the cloud, and the ability to connect these spaces from afar, we can bring the physical environment online and operate and manage it in terms of energy use, occupancy, productivity … really, the sky’s the limit here.”