The Tech Take: How one firm survived Harvey and Irma

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Hurricane season has swept into the United States this year with a vengeance, leaving people reeling from loss. It’s times such as these that really make the case for benefits of storing data in the cloud. For accounting firms, it can be the difference between business as usual and complete shut-down.

PMB Helin Donovan, a Texas-based firm with offices in Austin, Dallas and Houston, is one of those firms that is seeing the benefits of its decision to migrate to an entirely cloud-hosted environment. After Hurricane Harvey, the firm and its data emerged unscathed, thanks to a decision three years ago to host its data and on-premise software with Xcentric, which locates its servers in Atlanta.

This year being particularly severe, PMB Helin Donovan found itself in a position where it had to watch both Harvey, which hit the Houston area; as well as Hurricane Irma, which hit Florida, but also threatened other parts of the Southeast United States, including Georgia.

“With Irma hitting as well, Xcentric had redundant servers and warehouses in North Dakota that was unaffected, which allowed us to continue work,” explained Chris Bona, assurance partner at PMB Helin Donovan.

Redundancy is a vital concept in data backup and cybersecurity. While data hosted in the cloud can sometimes seem an ephemeral concept, the remotely accessible information is, at some point, located on a physical server somewhere. If those servers are compromised in some way, it is important to have identical backups in at least one other location — in Xcentric’s case, North Dakota — to keep operations running smoothly. Under normal circumstances, that data is simply duplicated exactly, sitting there quietly and not being directly accessed (hence, “redundant”). But in the event of a disaster at the first location, the redundant server kicks into action.

The main motivation behind PMB Helin Donovan migrating to the cloud was risk mitigation. “[We moved to the cloud] to reduce the risk of data being spread everywhere leading to data loss, whether losing hardware, computers crashing, or servers breaking at local offices,” said Bona. “Before we went to hosted platform we had servers at every office location, and we’d VPN tunnel into each. If you had some sort of issue in one office, all of a sudden that data was not accessible. Outsourcing just made a lot more sense because we no longer had data on client laptops, and if the internet cuts out, you don’t lose what you’ve been working on — there’s a real time instance in Atlanta.”

Not only does it behove a firm to have data backed up in multiple locations, but the flexibility for its employees to work from anywhere also allows them to continue business as usual if the physical offices are rendered inaccessible by floodwater or some other roadblock. Moving to the cloud changes a firm’s culture in ways besides around the security offsite servers provide. Bona said that at the firm’s Austin office, no more than about 30 percent of the staff are on location at any given time. (For more on the benefits of remote work, listen to our podcast on Fourlane, which has operated in a completely remote environment from its founding, shaping a work culture of trust and flexibility.)

“Software-as-a-service is more cost effective, and it improves responsiveness on our end,” Bona said. “Cloud-based is the next step. Everyone should be gravitating towards that to remain competitive in CPA world — access to data is huge advantage in client retention. If you can’t get access to data anywhere and anytime, you’re behind the curve.”

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Accounting software Data security Cloud computing