Cloud computing may sound ethereal – but for many of the UAE’s smartest of start-ups, it’s bringing some very real benefits on the ground.
Many of us use the cloud every day without even thinking about it – like when you check your Gmail or stream the latest tracks on Apple Music.
But the cloud’s vast computing power is also forming the backbone of some of the UAE’s most high-tech businesses.
Take TeachMeNow.com, founded in late 2013, which is a “virtual classroom” where teachers can earn money by giving one-to-one video tutorials.
Though the company is based in Dubai, the first live class it hosted involved a professor in Venezuela and a student in Saudi Arabia.
Thea Myhrvold, the founder and chief executive of TeachMeNow, says using the cloud brought several benefits. The company did not have to buy expensive hardware such as servers; connections between students and teachers are faster because of the cloud’s global network; and the service works in a web browser, without the need for an app.
Ms Myhrvold also says the cloud platform means her business can scale up without investing in new hardware. “You can have a global reach faster, with less cost,” she says. “We could have a million users tomorrow and our system wouldn’t crash.”
TeachMeNow hosts teachers specialising in subjects ranging from art to Arabic and chemistry to chess. Teachers set their own hourly rate, with the website taking a 15 per cent cut; the company also offers a white-labelled version that can be used by institutions looking to sell online classes.
Cloud services do, of course, come at a cost. But TeachMeNow has temporarily sidestepped this expense by signing up to a Microsoft initiative called BizSpark, which offers start-ups a limited amount of free software, technical support and cloud services over three years. The company later qualified for the BizSpark Plus programme, which offers up to US$120,000 of cloud over one year.
“We have saved quite a few thousand dollars already. And as a start-up, every cent counts,” says Ms Myhrvold.
Other tech giants have similar schemes aimed at start-ups, such as Amazon Web Services’ AWS Activate and the Google Cloud Platform for Startups. A Google representative in the UAE says members of the AstroLabs Dubai co-working space can get a free trial of the Google Cloud Platform but he says that start-up credits are not available in this market.
Michael Mansour, the chief innovation officer at Microsoft Gulf, says more than 100,000 start-ups worldwide are using the free BizSpark programme – he says that hundreds of them are in the Arabian Gulf.
“We have the greatest activity here in the UAE across all the Gulf countries. But we are seeing activity in Oman, in Kuwait, in Qatar, in Bahrain,” he says. “If you are starting a company, you don’t want the additional cost of software and hardware. We’re all coming to the realisation that cloud is a cost-reducer.”
Mr Mansour acknowledges that the cloud “can be misunderstood”. A study in 2014 by Microsoft Canada found that 90 per cent of senior executives in Canadia are not familiar with what cloud computing means. Almost half felt their company’s information would be unsafe in the cloud – even though, according to Microsoft Canada, the multiple backups of data made by cloud services “keeps it safe from fires, floods or malicious damage that could strike on-premise servers”.
Mr Mansour says the cloud has advantages in terms of reducing capital expenditure and enabling applications that rely on heavy processing or big data, such as artificial intelligence and the internet of things.
KinTrans, another Dubai-based start-up, relies on a lot of data-crunching. It has developed software that translates physical sign language, which is analysed using a Microsoft Kinect motion-sensing device, into voice and text, enabling communication between the hearing and the deaf.
KinTrans is currently perfecting its technology and plans to start licensing out its software later this year, says Catherine Bentley, its co-founder and chief business development officer. She says the company had also taken advantage of the offer of free Azure cloud and software services from Microsoft.
“The data processing happens in the cloud. It keeps the on-earth operations really easy and really accessible for businesses,” says Ms Bentley.
“The Azure cloud is also going to be the way that we commercialise. So as a business-to-business model, and licensing base, we can be everywhere and only one place at the same time.”
But while Microsoft, Amazon and Google are all keen to offer deals on cloud and software services to start-ups, they are not charities. As Ms Bentley says, KinTrans will probably become a paying customer of Microsoft cloud services in the future. “They’re feeding their pipeline,” she says.
And given the rise in cloud computing usage, there have been some concerns raised about security. “Just because we can’t touch it, doesn’t mean it’s any more secure or less secure than any other device that we use,” says Ms Bentley.
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