Traditional IT is on the verge of death.
At least that’s the view of Pete Watson, who argues that while risk-adverse companies might cling to the old ways of working for a while, all will eventually get swept up in the tide of progress represented by cloud computing.
Pete should know.
As chief executive of the Newcastle-based Atlas Cloud, he’s responsible for growing a business that depends on breaking new territory with a digital solution still treated with skepticism by “scare-mongering” IT managers.
In essence, the cloud - an increasingly discussed subject within the North East business community - means ditching local, on-premises servers in favour of a remote network hosted on the internet, where data can be stored, managed and processed.
The concept, contrary to popular opinion, isn’t exactly a new one, with larger corporations having made use of it for quite some time now.
Where Atlas Cloud differs, however, is its focus on SMEs, the service being shaped to a highly scalable, highly convenient model that provides tailored hosted desktop solutions for a pay-as-you-go monthly fee.
It’s a formula that seems to be working; since its creation in 2010, the firm has enjoyed 100% growth year-on-year, with turnover currently standing at just under £1m.
The company, which currently employs 20 staff, has also opened offices in London, Sheffield, Manchester and Leeds, and has it sights set on major national expansion throughout the next few years.
“We knew what was going to happen with the cloud 10 years ago and whether people like it or not, it’s here to stay,” Pete said. “It’s just a bit of a step-change, like with mobile phones.
“They started out clunky. Now everyone has a contract, they store lots of data and buy new applications. We’re trying to get people to understand that IT is just going down a similar route.”
On the face of it anyway, there’s plenty to be said for making the move to the cloud.
For a start, it means entire desktops - including email, applications and data - can be accessed from anywhere on a wide range of devices at any time.
Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s also extremely safe, with Atlas Cloud’s clients’ information being stored in highly secure ISO 27001-accredited data centres, for which backups are performed daily.
At firms where IT is a non-core operation, likewise, it means saving significant quantities of time when it comes to maintenance, and significant sums of money when it comes to licences, staffing and electricity (keep in mind that desktop computers and servers bring additional expenses through the need for air conditioning).
“There’s generally a business reason that motivates people to come to us,” Pete said. “Firms have been through a recession and may have underspent on IT for the past six or seven years and now want a new system.
“Or it could be a firm going from a single site to a multi-site operation.
“Likewise, during mergers and acquisitions, when there are lots of computers and servers with data on them, businesses can conveniently transfer everything to the cloud.”
Getting his own business to where it is today, Pete admits, has taken considerable effort - not to mention long hours - but, like most entrepreneurs in his line of work, it’s passion that’s helped him turn seemingly radical concept into practical solution.
Indeed, technology has been passion of his for as long as he can remember.
Growing up in Newcastle, for example, he was the first at his school to have a mobile phone - a somewhat “chunky” Nokia.
The seeds of his entrepreneurship were likewise sown at an early age.
“I always wanted to run a business,” he said. “At eight years old, I used to buy toys and jokes from the Quayside and sell them on at school at considerable margins.”
Surprisingly, then, it wasn’t IT but PPE that he studied at Manchester University.
“It had a good reputation for being a difficult degree,” he recalled. “It also gave me a balanced view of philosophy, politics and economics, and a great experience of being independent in a big city where there were lots of exciting things going on.”
Following that, Pete “accidentally” fell into recruitment, applying for a job as a trainee business manager, which actually involved making 60 sales calls every day.
He moved on to couple of different companies but ultimately knew he wasn’t a “career consultant” and returned to university - Durham this time - to study for an MBA.
“Academically, I learned a lot,” he said. “But the most important thing is the people that you meet on a course like that.”
Indeed, Pete met Phil Richardson, from technology company Acxiom.
Phil and his colleague Chris Morris, then, were keen to bring him on board as they contemplated creating cloud solutions for the SME market. Business planning began around 2009, with Pete then starting to raise funds the following year.
“When I spoke to investors, I had to convince them that this was the future of computing,” he said. “But every investor believed in the people behind the business and we continue to attract more investors, for whose support we remain grateful.”
To get things off the ground, Atlas Cloud created a demo version of its services to take to potential customers.
At first, Pete recalled, work was slow to pick up, with companies having to take a “leap of faith” in trusting the Brave New World of the cloud.
The capacity of the technology, however, was amply demonstrated when Atlas Cloud began providing services for environmental consultancy Ecus Ltd, transferring dozens of specialist applications on to the new platform.
Other clients such as Age UK Newcastle, Fluid Group and the South Shields-headquartered KIS Lettings followed.
KIS director Ajay Jagota recalled: “As we had grown, so had the demands on our server and quite frankly, the costs associated with an upgrade were untenable.
“We needed another option and it soon became clear that cloud technology held the greatest benefits if we made the jump.
“One proviso, however, was that we still had existing hardware that was perfectly serviceable and we didn’t want to replace it immediately, so the solution had to embrace what we had.”
KIS spoke to a national company and two within the North East.
Ajay, however, was ultimately, most impressed by what Atlas Cloud was offering.
“The team quickly understood our business objectives and built a scalable IT model that is highly secure, requires no maintenance and will serve us for us for years to come,” he said.
“We are still using our existing hardware, but there will come a time when we will need to upgrade again and we will then lease what we need from Atlas Cloud, giving us the latest equipment without the associated overheads.”
While much of the early work Atlas Cloud attracted came from firms with between five and 50 employees, the company is now delivering services to more businesses within the 50-150 employee range, which Pete calls the “sweet spot” for cloud services.
“At that size, companies would be recruiting IT managers and their spend on IT would increase,” he said. “They might be thinking about new offices or acquisitions and IT could suddenly become very expensive. Those businesses want something scalable they could trust in.”
As for Atlas Cloud, the company has its sights set on continued growth, with new office opening anticipated and headcount - if all goes to plan - rising to around 50 in the coming three years.
“We’re an ambitious company that’s keen to grow and move into new geographical areas,” Pete said. “We’re also proud to be creating good quality jobs in this region.”
What car do you drive? Mercedes E class… It’s all about boot size with a young family
What’s your favourite restaurant? Vujon or Sachins in Newcastle
Who or what makes you laugh? Many things. I am pretty light-hearted, but it’s always hilarious when my childhood best friends and I are all together
What’s your favourite book? I am a keen traveller so any Rough Guide or Lonely Planet book relating to an up and coming excursion
What was the last album you bought? Chase and Status – Brand New Machine
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got? When my time at Atlas is no more I look forward
to starting a new technology business… hopefully a little wiser.
What’s your greatest fear? Not pushing myself or those around me.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received? Out-think, out-work… repeat
And the worst? Not so much advice, but I detest political games and people
What’s your poison? Burgundy, Pinot Noir and Moscato
What newspapers do you read other than The Journal? The Financial Times
How do you keep fit? Road Biking and Tough Mudders. I’ll throw my hat in with anything challenging
What’s your most irritating habit? Being a bit untidy.
How much was your first pay packet? £40 selling jokes and toys at school when I was eight. I got suspended for trying to make a few quid.
What’s your biggest extravagance? Making sure my girls are looked after
What historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire? Winston Churchill - in the face of adversity he out thought the opposition; a great strategic thinker
How would you like to be remembered? With a laugh
Which four people would you most like to dine with? I’d have to have Churchill at the head of the table and Steve Jobs next to him. I’d try to pick up a tips from Olympic cyclist Chris Froome and have a few laughs with Kevin Bridges