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There are a lot of benefits that come with working in the cloud, says Richard Mann, Head of Payments at Australia Post. It is rapid to set up. It is available any hour of the day or night from virtually anywhere. All you need is a computer and a web connection, so even if your office floods or burns down, business continuity need not be seriously affected.
But the strengths of cloud computing are also its weaknesses. Rather than being contained within the relatively secure confines of your office walls, your data is now elsewhere. And the more you use particular cloud services, the more difficult it can be to remove your business from them should the need arise.
"Cloud services are on everybody's lips, and for good reason," says Mann. "But there are questions that should be asked before subscribing to any monthly, web-based cloud service – questions around security, privacy and contractual terms."
It's important that you query a cloud provider's intentions and policies around your data, says Mann. "Are they going to use your data in some way? Are they going to commercialise it?" he asks. "Even if it has been de-identified, will it be used in some way for the cloud provider's own, additional purposes? This is not necessarily a negative or a positive, but it is worth understanding."
"If I use internet banking, they send me a token or an SMS to help protect my transactions," says Mann. "You're sharing similarly sensitive business information with your cloud provider, so what are their authentication protocols? Do they have rules around certain processes, such as resetting passwords?"
You may trust a cloud provider, but how do you know you can trust the business that hosts their cloud service? Mann recommends ensuring all third parties used by the provider have some sort of certification or guarantee of security at a physical level and at a systems level. "You might trust the business you're dealing with as a software provider in the cloud," he says. "But where are they hosting and what is the downstream security like?"
"The premise of a cloud-based system is that it's subscribed on a month-to-month basis, which means you can terminate at any point," says Mann. "So, can you get your data out and in what format? When you leave, what do they do with your data? If it is destroyed, how do they do that?
"Also, what formats does the cloud provider accept to bulk upload? You might churn away from the provider but you also might churn to them. So, do they accept input data from their competition?"
There are many reasons to ensure a cloud services provider and its products are fully ready for the Australian business environment, notes Mann. These range from the simple fact that tools, such as accounting software, must be coded to work within the Australian business and tax environment. The provider must operate in accordance with Australian privacy laws. And if they offer customer service, is that locally based or will you need to ring a foreign contact centre whose staff understand little of the intricacies of the Australian business environment?
Cloud providers know that once you're in their system, it is difficult for you to leave. But what do they offer as a long-term incentive? How do they reward their loyal customers?
One of the reasons you enter the cloud in the first place, says Mann, is to streamline your systems and create greater efficiencies. But if your various cloud services, including accounting, shopping carts, parcel delivery systems and electronic mail services, do not speak to each other, then they can add more work for you.
"It's all very well for a supplier to say they offer ‘unlimited service'," says Mann, "but if you're left on hold for hours or if the person on the other end of the phone has no idea what you're talking about, then that service isn't worth anything.
"A lot of companies offer crowd support and that can be very helpful. The cloud is filled with similar users, so if you have a question or a problem, it is likely it has already been asked and answered."
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