Recent developments in technology, including the proliferation of reliable high-speed internet and a vast array of web-based applications, have made a compelling business case for many organizations to seriously consider cloud computing. Benefits include both lower capital costs, lower on-going operating costs, and no hardware and software installation and maintenance to worry about.
Until about 2008, there were relatively few cloud storage providers and a limited number of web applications. However in recent years the cloud computing industry has exploded, with almost every conceivable application now being offered as a cloud service. Forbes recently reported that by 2018 more than 60% of enterprises will have at least half of their infrastructure on cloud-based platforms.
Where do I start?
In evaluating your organization’s opportunity to embrace cloud computing and to move to the cloud, there are three distinct service areas to consider: email (including calendar & contacts), file storage and software applications.
Web-based email has the same functionality as PC-based email, but without the high cost and headaches of maintaining an in-house email system. The two leading web-based email providers are Google and Microsoft. Both these providers support mobile devices such as Blackberry, iPhone, Android and Windows Phone. Google’s mail, calendar and contacts also interface with MS Outlook running on PC’s.
When choosing a cloud file storage service, there are a number of factors to consider such as level of file encryption, the ease of viewing, editing and saving files, ability to assign read/write permissions to folders or files, desktop and application access, and password protection. You may want to choose a service that automatically syncs your data to a local NAS (Network Access Storage) device, so that if you lose access to the cloud service, you still have the ability to access your data locally. Some of the leading cloud storage providers are Google, Microsoft, Dropbox, Egnyte and Amazon.
There are now cloud applications available to meet almost every business need. For example, standard office applications to create documents, spreadsheets, presentations and forms are now available online from both Google and Microsoft. If you are running a local server-based CRM, there are now many web-based CRM’s to consider, including Solve360, Salesforce, Sugar and NetSuite. Quickbooks Online offers a web-hosted alternative to the traditional desktop or server-based accounting software.
What are the risks of moving to the cloud?
Moving to the cloud is not risk-free, however maintaining all IT operations in-house has its own set of risks, along with significant costs. The following are some of the risks to be aware of when evaluating cloud storage services, and suggestions to help mitigate these risks:
- Data availability.What if you lose internet connectivity, or your cloud service provider goes off line? We suggest maintaining a local copy of your files on a NAS device which is automatically sync’d to the cloud, providing you with access to your data until connectivity is restored.
- Data privacy and security. Cloud providers will most likely provide better security than maintaining your own internal IT infrastructure, as they have significantly more resources to dedicate to this end. The cloud provider must be in compliance with data privacy and security rules and regulations that apply to your organization, such as PCI-DSS and PIPEDA. Access permissions should ensure that only the right users have access to the right files. Transmission security that employs 256-bit AES encryption ensures that even if company data were intercepted, it would be impossible to decipher.
- Data retention. Files must be stored in compliance with your data retention policies, for example to ensure availability of historical financial information for tax authorities.
- Disaster recovery.Your cloud provider must have documented and tested disaster recovery capabilities.
Canadian organizations may express concern with their data being stored outside of Canada. Privacy and data residency requirements do vary by country, province, sector and industry, and users of cloud services need to consider the rules that cover each of the jurisdictions they operate in. You may potentially be required by government to keep certain sensitive data within Canadian borders. However for a majority of private and not-for-profit organizations, geographic data residency is not a concern.
To help protect cloud data from unauthorized access regardless of its geographic location, most cloud providers provide various encryption and tokenization services. It is important to ensure that data is encrypted during transmission while being saved to and retrieved from cloud storage.
There is a misconception that as long as your data is stored in Canada, foreign governments will be prevented from gaining access to it. The US has taken the position that it can request access to any data stored by a US-based company, regardless of the geographic location the data resides in. In addition, even if your data is stored in Canada by a non US-based company, there is no assurance that it will not be accessed by the US government as it’s estimated that 90% of Canadian internet traffic is routed via the US.
Finally, information sharing treaties between countries means that your information is no better protected if it is stored in Canada than in the US. The provisions of the USA Patriot Act that have attracted the most criticism have equivalents under Canadian law. The Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) cooperates very closely with the NSA and its counterparts in other countries in sharing information collected from within Canada.
An accelerating trend
The shift to the cloud is happening at an accelerating rate, as organizations recognize the potential opportunity to reap cost savings by dramatically reducing their IT expenditures. Competition amongst cloud service providers is intense as they compete for a share of this rapidly expanding market, resulting in greater choice for businesses seeking cloud services.
The case for moving to the cloud can be a compelling one, and should not be ignored. If your organization maintains an in-house IT infrastructure and support, then it may be time to evaluate the feasibility of cloud computing.
If you would like to find out more about the benefits of moving to the cloud, or need help improving operating efficiency, reducing costs and strengthening your organization, please contact me at 613-727-1230 ext. 212 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Richard MacNeill, FCPA, FCMA, CMC, Dipl. T. is a partner at OTUS Group, a team of advisors to business, government and not-for-profit organizations.