Should I store my clients’ files on the cloud?

Paperless office isn’t a concept anymore. Soft copies have numerous advantages over physical files and folders, and we won’t repeat those here. In this day and age, the benefits of storing documents electronically for professional services firms are far too many and far too obvious. Moreover, there’s institutional acceptance also now. Generally speaking, you are legally permitted to store important business documents in the electronic form – although you should verify this for your geography and jurisdiction.

It’s now a question of how should you implement your electronic document management strategy, not whether you should do it. There are several ways o’course and you can choose the one that you’re comfortable with. You can choose to trust the cloud or set up an in-house infrastructure (if you have the time and resources) or you can get expert help to set up virtual private clouds to get the best of both worlds. Some of the important factors to keep in mind when devising your strategy are – security, availability and cost o’course.

Should I just provision an on-premise server?

While you might feel that keeping your files on a computer physically inside your network is the safest way to go, that might not actually be so. You need to put in place the right access policies, firewalls and other security measures to ensure your network isn’t prone to unauthorized (internal or external) access. You need to keep the servers swift and healthy – monitoring for possible defects, failures or bottlenecks. God forbid, if the server were to fry up, the loss would be much more than just monetary if you didn’t have backup and recovery plans in place. Point being – the moment you choose to put up your own hardware and network infrastructure for hosting your business critical data, you take on a lot of responsibility. Your job doesn’t end at just provisioning hardware, you are then responsible for maintenance, security and backup – all critical aspects to keep your data safe and available. As a professional services firm, that isn’t your core area of expertise, is it? And for small and mid-sized practices, this isn’t a very affordable exercise either.

Even if for some debatable reason, you chose to set up a physical server inside your office, the absolute minimum that you need to do is devise a backup solution – simple, duct-tape ways involving scheduled tasks or even something as archaic as manual nightly backups, or something a little more meaningul and reliable involving the cloud – either way, a backup strategy needs to exist.

How secure are cloud based systems?

As with anything else, that would depend, upon the vendor. But given the concept of cloud is no longer experimental, any vendor that’s worth anything in this market, will offer a banking grade security environment. Data transmission will be encrypted, meaning snooping-proof. Data will be stored securely with automated checks and processes for integrity, backup and recovery.

While for bigger firms, there exists a way to avail the security of a closed network with the flexibility of remote access using VPN, i.e. virtual private networks, it is relatively costly and a bit of an overkill for small to mid-sized firms. We’ll leave this one for later.

The tremendously powerful bit that cloud enables, is remote collaboration. Imagine being able to provide your clients with a self-serviced environment. Instead of calling and asking you to email a copy of a 2 year old IT return, your client could just access your cloud based system, in a controlled environment o’course, and download the data he needs, if authorized. This experience is already not unheard of, even in the SME space. Small and mid-sized firms are as capable of extending a professional, transparent, low-cost IT enabled experience to their clients, as the big four, courtesy the cloud.

This post has presented a fairly general point of view on this topic. Subsequent posts in this series will elaborate upon specific options that small businesses have for implementing the kind of solutions listed above – i.e. simple backup softwares, cloud based document management softwares, collaboration suites etc.