How to Choose the Right Cloud Provider

Every CPA firm has unique needs, its own culture, and ways of doing business. Cloud providers are all different too, even though some of the technology and software they deploy overlaps. 

Partnering successfully with a cloud provider can be complicated because the “fit” must go beyond technology and expertise alone.  Certain universal elements can usually signal if a cloud provider is right for you. 

Before engaging in interviews, however, it’s essential to look inward to get a sense of your CPA firm’s IT strengths and weaknesses, including getting a clearer sense of what you just don’t know. This internal audit process is critical in that it will empower your team to ask the right questions and to know when to ask the hard questions that will weed out mismatches.

Organizational self-awareness will give you and your team the confidence it needs to explore the following areas during the interview process, leading you to the right cloud service partner. 


Press Them on Security Best Practices

Cyber security and data protection are top priorities for CPA firms regardless of size. The frequency, sophistication and range of targets from corporate behemoths to emerging and small companies means your CPA firm is in the crosshairs, whether you believe it or not. All it takes is one data breach to cause major problems for your firm.

That’s why it’s critical the cloud service provider you hire is on the cutting edge of security and can provide support 24/7/365 to your organization. 

It’s widely known that cyber-security technology alone cannot make your data secure. Employees represent a tremendous security threat. From convincing email phishing schemes and lost computers to the personal use of phones and human error, your internal team is a well-documented source of risk. Ask your potential cloud partner how they can help you train your employees to utilize data security best practices in their day-to-day routines. 

What’s more, make sure that your cloud partner has experienced developing and executing disaster recovery plans. This should include proactive security measures, employee training, and possibly even mock security breach drills. It’s proven that the longer the recovery process takes, the more damaging a cyberattack will be.


Make Sure They Understand Your Industry

The CPA industry has specific information technology needs. During the interview process, make sure you ask if a cloud service provider has worked in your space before. Also ask them who they worked with and for how long. 

If the people behind the technology don’t understand your industry, their capability to help efficiently align cloud services with your organizational goals will be seriously compromised. At best, the learning curve will elongate the migration process and might slow reaction time once engaged; at worst, a cloud provider unfamiliar with your industry could put your company at serious risk from a cyber-security and compliance standpoint.

As you interview potential cloud service providers, don’t be afraid to delve into their familiarity with your industry or lack thereof. Technology, software and automation alone do not guarantee a successful partnership; successfully applying a cloud service provider’s capabilities within the context of your industry space is what determines a mutually beneficial relationship.


Can They Tailor the Cloud for Your Organization?

Every IT ecosystem is unique. Delve into a cloud partner’s commitment level to customization and building tailored solutions for you. Are they formulaic in their approach? Or is their process agile enough to include a robust discovery phase and the flexibility to customize the cloud to your industry, team needs, and client requirements? 

A strong IT partner won’t sell you a purely out-of-the-box solution; they’ll work closely with you to measure what can be utilized and what needs to be replaced. This is really the only way for a CPA firm to get the most from a cloud service partner, as your available budget must be used in an efficient manner. 


Are They a Good Culture Fit?

Delve into a potential cloud partner’s company culture directly. Ask about their values and mission. Visit their offices and data centers. Get a feel for how a possible partner operates and if their value system aligns with your organization’s “why.” 

While technological capability is a big driver, for sure, being able to work with your partner, particularly in times of high stress or even crisis, is a very important, if often overlooked, area of due diligence. 


Ensure Redundancy and Multiple Backup Methods Are Built Into Their Protocols

Experienced cloud hosting providers understand that having multiple data backup methodologies is imperative to protecting their client’s information. Deploying a diverse, layered back up approach—including guarantees from the cloud provider that your data will be backed up daily—to data protection is most effective in mitigating a wide range of risks, including natural disasters, fires, theft and cyber attack.

Your cloud hosting partner should be able to speak directly to their multiple data backup methodologies, why they work and how they protect your CPA firm’s data. Saving data on multiple hard drives in various locations and protecting data in secure, geographically dispersed data centers are a few of the many approaches that work to prevent data loss.

Minimal redundancy and just a few layers of backups won’t cut it in today’s world. Find a partner that understands redundancy and backup best practices and can apply it to your specific company and industry.  


Ask to Visit Their Data Centers

You wouldn’t buy a house site unseen, right? Ask your potential cloud hosting partner if you and your team can visit their data centers. Ask for a tour. Many companies don’t realize they can visit the place where their most sensitive data will be protected. 

Don’t take a potential hosting companies “word for it.” Have them give you a tour and be prepared to ask informed questions.

  • Ask about their security compliance certifications like SSAE 16 and SOC 2
  • Do they have fire suppression systems and biometric scanning?
  • Is the center under 24-hour manned security and camera?
  • What is their back up generator situation?

These offsite data centers will become the lifeline for your CPA firm. You have every right to ask a potential cloud provider these questions and you should. Don’t buy that house without a tour and careful inspection.


How Do They Leverage Artificial Intelligence for Stronger Cyber Security?

Artificial Intelligence or AI is becoming a powerful force in cyber security, as it leverages the power of automation and machine learning to thwart changing data security threats that move too fast for your team.

Experienced and leading-edge cloud providers deploy AI to external security as well as internal user habits, mapping what’s normal activity to more easily identify anomalies that could indicate a breach. Automated network scanning and email scanning, as well as faster threat updates when compared to traditional anti-virus software programs, are all benefits of leveraging AI for data security.

The role AI plays in data and cyber security will only increase over time. You want to find a cloud hosting provider that already uses AI and is equipped to identify and deploy new AI security tools as they emerge, not six months after that fact. 


How Skilled Is Their Support Team and Do They Have a Proven Track Record?

Support and ongoing maintenance will be huge when it comes to ensuring a successful cloud partnership. Poor support and client services, failure to execute timely updates and security gaps can all lead to disaster.

That’s why you need to inquire about a potential cloud partner’s support team and its track record. Ask the firm:

  • Is their support team in-house?
  • What is their average experience (are they entry level or veteran IT engineers)?
  • Do they offer 24/7/365 support?
  • What is their downtime track record? 
  • What was their most recent security incident response and what happened?
  • What kind of training can they give your team?

The fact is you could migrate to the best cloud solution on the planet, but the support staff you work with weekly or daily and during emergencies can make or break this investment. And, in a worst case scenario, a serious security breach could make or break your organization.


Ask About the Migration Process

The horror stories of terrible, unending migrations are pervasive and remain a huge obstacle to improving IT performance and security. 

So, it’s incumbent upon you and your team to dig into a potential partner’s migration process and performance history. 

You can ask them how long a typical migration takes, when it is performed (evening or weekends) and how many team members will be assigned to the job. Find out what kind of migration promises they are willing to make, and, perhaps even more importantly, what do their other clients have to say about their migration experiences?


Ask to Speak with Clients Like You

Ask to speak directly to other CPA firms about their experiences with this cloud service provider. Once again, if a company can’t provide references for your industry, or can only do so with one smaller client, it might not be the right fit for your organization. 

By speaking to other CPA firms about their experience with a given cloud partner, you’ll be able to uncover some nuances that might be red flags or signs they’re the right fit. We all know the IT service provider is going to give you references that had a positive experience; however, being able to talk shop on the granular level to a reference, and placing the IT services within the context of operations, will help you get a better sense of an IT service provider’s track record.

Finding the right cloud service provider for your CPA firm is like interviewing and selecting a new partner. It requires internal awareness and serious, focused due diligence. 

Good cloud providers use the latest technologies to protect your most sensitive data. The best cloud hosting organizations go beyond technology to deliver agile, customized solutions that are directed by skilled IT veterans who understand your needs, industry, culture, and team. The strongest data security programs are an ever changing collaboration among great technology, an outstanding, experienced cloud hosting partner and your team that knows your CPA firm best.