By Susanne Tedrick
Cloud computing has become a necessity for accounting firms to stay agile and competitive. Cloud computing works on a shared service model, which means that both the user – in this case a CPA firm – and cloud service provider share a level of responsibility to one another. Because of the shared responsibility, there are advantages and potential disadvantages that need to be considered before committing to a cloud service provider.
First, though, it is important to point out that cloud computing is less an actual technology and more of a business concept that leverages existing internet technologies. Various organizations define cloud computing differently, so this blog will use the National Institute of Standards and Technologies (NIST) definition of cloud computing. The NIST definition provides a unified, common understanding, regardless of the provider.
There are many factors an accounting firm must consider before selecting a cloud service provider. Quite a few will be specific to your firm’s needs. In this blog, I provide several basic points that will help you get started.
Pricing and Cost that Meet Your Needs
Determine how the provider will charge your business for its services. Will they offer the flexibility to charge by the hour, or is a monthly commitment necessary? As you investigate this, find out if you will be able to monitor costs in a clear and understandable fashion and, if you need to contest charges, is there a clear process to follow.
Cost Optimization and Scalability
Investigate whether a potential provider supports newer cloud service models that can minimize costs, such as serverless computing or functions as a service (FaaS), which only charge for what you consume. Then evaluate the provider’s ability to effectively scale. Does the provider allow you to quickly and easily scale up and down resources when needed? If so, will the provider provide tools for you to do this on your own, or will it be necessary to speak to a third party?
Reputation, Reliability, and Availability
Get an idea of the reputation for each prospective provider. Are they known to be reliable and available? Crowd-sourced review sites such as G2.com offer unbiased opinions on cloud-based platforms and services. Availability is a crucial determination. Vital questions in this area include how much downtime should you expect, in what ways does the provider try to minimize outages, and how do they compensate you for lost time and resources when downtime occurs?
Compatibility with Your Business (Openness)
It is important to know if you will be able to use the platform with your existing applications, infrastructures, and technologies. If not, would you need to perform some type of reconfiguration or would you have to start from scratch to align your work with their platform? Also, consider whether the provider can interact with other platforms, as you may find there may be a service that you’d like to use on one platform, but not on another.
Cloud services are largely deployed in a self-service manner, but most providers offer various support options, from free to paid. Each comes with a different level of support in terms of response time and technical assistance. Determine the level of service you will need. Under free support plans, help may only be available under a “best efforts” basis, which generally means only when technical support resources are available and have time. Paid support plans stipulate guaranteed assistance within a certain time frame. Advanced and premium support plans, while offering speedier assistance, can come with a steep charge. You will have to figure out what fits your price point and the expected need. You will also want to research a potential service provider’s customer service reps. Do they have a reputation for getting back to customers in a timely manner? Again, crowd-sourced reviews can offer some guidance.
It is vital to identify the type of security standards a provider employs. This point cannot be stressed enough. Have they had any major data breaches in the recent past? If so, how were they addressed? Find out about the safeguards potential providers have to ensure your data remains safe. Does the service provider heavily document all the protocols, security certifications received, and methods they use to keep your cloud infrastructures, applications, and data safe?
Read the Fine Print
In the early days of cloud computing, certain providers claimed to own any data or intellectual property that was put on their networks and storage, even without client consent. While data ownership and access usually are not problems today, it is prudent to check all specifications.
There are numerous factors to consider when choosing a cloud provider. Doing your homework before committing to a provider is imperative for every practitioner, for the sake of the firm and your clients.
Susanne Tedrick is a Microsoft technical trainer for Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing platform. She also is the author of Women of Color in Tech and the upcoming Innovating for Diversity. For more information, visit SusanneTedrick.com.
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