The more tech-savvy corners of the accounting world are constantly abuzz with talk of the next biggest solution that will change the profession. Over the past decade, the excitement has been the cloud; today, machine learning, artificial intelligence and even robots have piqued the industry’s interest. But the reality is that in a nation where 40 percent of the rural population and a tenth of the whole population does not have access to broadband Internet, the cloud is a revolution still in the making.
The wide availability of web development tools today has enabled cloud software companies to evangelize the idea that if you’re not in the cloud, you should be — now. And it’s true that using online software platforms exclusively has its benefits, like mobility, security and cost savings. But moving to the cloud is not as easy as dumping the old software and selecting a shiny new one.
Many firms have been using on-premise software for years. Not only does this mean loyalty to a known entity, but also significant investment in technology over time. The sunk-cost fallacy sometimes takes over when firms evaluate whether their legacy system is the best choice for them going forward: Even if moving to a cloud-based system will provide better benefits in the future, the financial and emotional outlay can cloud good judgement. Client pushback can be an issue, too, as clients are as likely as anyone else to balk at change.
This is not to say that the cloud is a surefire winning investment. Most cloud-based finance and accounting platforms operate on a subscription basis, which is a whole new way of doing business for firms used to paying up-front prices for their software. It can be difficult to assess whether the ROI will be worth it over time.
The term “cloud” is used broadly and loosely, but there are basically three ways accounting firms can relate to the cloud: A firm’s operations can exist and be hosted entirely on their own premises, in which case they are not in the cloud; their software and applications can be hosted offsite with the help of a cloud hosting provider that owns and manages the physical servers on which the data resides; or they can operate completely virtually, using only Web-based software and apps (which in turn are hosted on large cloud computing platforms like Amazon Web Services).
DP&C’s migration to the cloud
Tacoma, Washington-based firm DP&C hired the cloud vendor Cetrom to help it move to a cloud-hosted environment—the second option mentioned above.
Age has real consequences on how easy it is for a firm to migrate to a cloud environment. DP&C was founded in 1936, in a decade in which exciting technological innovation meant color films and photocopy machines (although to be fair, nuclear fission was discovered in 1939). The firm recently completed its move to a cloud-hosted environment, and is very satisfied with the results. But with 80 years of information contained in both paper and electronic files, data migration is not easy, and the value proposition has to be extremely compelling for a firm to even begin to want to undertake the task.
At DP&C, whose staff members number around 30, working remotely or with clients offsite had become too difficult for it not to seek a better solution. The firm was using a suite of on-premise solutions, but accessing its systems via VPN was slow and cumbersome. So DP&C enlisted the help of technology advisor Donny Shimamoto and his company, Intraprise TechKnowlogies, to document its computer systems, programs and needs, as well as conduct extensive research to find several cloud IT solution providers that serviced accountants. After his evaluation, DP&C selected cloud vendor Cetrom, which develops customized cloud computing configurations customized to CPA firms.
Cetrom’s custom cloud-hosted solution enabled DP&C’s employees to work from home far more easily—which has its own set of employee satisfaction-related benefits—and work with clients in the field more efficiently.
“We now have laptops that employees can take into the field, but those laptops don’t contain any information,” Karin Teles, administrator at DP&C, said. “All information is on the cloud, so if a laptop is stolen … we feel a lot better about that.”
Security is another very compelling reason for firms to consider moving to the cloud. Accountants would do well to take to heart the mantra that they are there to help clients do the business they’re good at and not have to focus on accounting; similarly, accounting firms are not tech firms, and outsourcing the management of a firm’s information systems to a capable technology provider is a smart move. It’s a mistake to think on-premise servers are more secure because they can be entirely managed in house; in fact, most software breaches are inside jobs, and cloud hosting companies have far more sophisticated security measures than most in-house IT departments can offer.
“We’re accountants, not tech wizards,” said Teles, who “couldn’t speak highly enough” of the support Cetrom provided the firm during implementation. The tech company had weekly meetings with the firm, and one of Cetrom’s senior engineers answered any question DP&C had. These meetings occurred over a period of six to eight weeks before transitioning, and the migration took place over a weekend. The firm was closed on a Friday, and up and running on Monday, with Cetrom engineers remaining at the firm for a few days in case of any issues.
Another security benefit of cloud hosting is having servers located in more than one geographical region, which has redundancy benefits in case of an outage or natural disaster. DP&C happens to be located on the Tacoma Fault, an active fault line that poses the risk of earthquakes. Cetrom has its servers in two locations -- Virginia and Colorado—not to mention airlocks (double doors that are both protected by security measures) at every facility entrance and Kevlar-covered walls that provide protection from extremely severe weather events.
Finally, cloud vendors such as Cetrom enable firms to outsource a large chunk of their IT needs. For example, Cetrom provides technical support 24/7/365; and during implementation, it was present from initial set-up to implementation weekend to help the firm through every step.
Migrating to the cloud hasn’t changed the fundamental way DP&C operates, Teles said. It’s just saved a lot of time, made its staff more efficient, and its data more secure.
What’s the next big technological innovation that will have everyone talking? Let’s hope for robots.