Three questions you should ask your cloud-based software provider

Back in the day, if you were a software company pitching to investors, the first questions they asked you were much the ones you might expect: your turnover, margins, how many customers you have and so on. Smarter investors asked about things like retention rates and cost of customer acquisition. Around 2005 or so, all that changed: the question at the top of the list became “What’s your SaaS strategy?” A couple of years later, that morphed into “What’s your Cloud strategy?”

A few years later, I run a business which is small (9 employees) but complex (multi-currency, multi-lingual, multi-country). And indeed, pretty much everything that isn’t on our own server is run in the cloud: I finally moved our accounting system from Intuit’s Quickbooks desktop to Quickbooks Online eighteen months ago.

The move to Online has resulted in some small wins. The main one is that I don’t have to run a Windows Virtual Machine any more (I run Macs because I develop software and the tools require a Unix-family operating system). And it’s occasionally but infrequently useful to be able to get some of the accounts done at home in the evening. But the truth is that most of the product works very similarly and, broadly speaking, going cloud hasn’t affected things much either way.

Except that I’m now terrified. For three reasons.

What happens, it’s fair to ask,  if I do something really stupid with a transaction – of the sort that can’t be reversed. I’m accident-prone, after all, like anyone else. On the desktop product, it was easy to deal with: I would simply have reverted to the previous night’s or previous month’s backup and re-input a bunch of transactions. On the online product, backup and restore isn’t an option that’s provided. This isn’t unique to Intuit, by the way – the norm seems to be that most cloud vendors simply don’t offer this.

Lest you think this is unlikely to happen, I can tell you that when you advance payroll a month, there’s a large warning saying “This cannot be undone”: any mistakes and you’re toast. And when I have needed to work around bugs or omissions in Quickbooks, their technical support people have recommended with gay abandon that I do things that affect transactions in now-closed periods (i.e. would potentially make my VAT return illegal).

The next question for your vendor concerns their attitude to bugs. Not “technical support issues,” not “stray transactions that can be corrected,” but bugs – the real thing, where the system isn’t working. Perhaps intermittently, and perhaps just on your database. In desktop days, you had the option to simply not upgrade. Or to roll back an upgrade if it all went pear-shaped. In cloud days, you don’t. You really, really want your vendor to be completely committed to doing whatever it takes to bring you back on-line and running. And the truth is, these vendors are not. A missing feature deep in the multi-currency handling of Quickbooks Online kept my ledgers out of balance for most of a year until someone clever in Intuit figured out a workaround. Problems with my online banking interface are approaching their second birthday: the software worked fine when I evaluated it; two months in, Intuit deployed a rewrite which broke it. And there is no sign of them showing any commitment to getting it fixed: they work on it for a bit, and then give up. Fortunately, it’s only a time waster rather than a complete showstopper: because remember, I don’t have data portability of any viable sort. I have no easy way of exporting my data such that I could rapidly start again with another vendor.

The scariest problem (albeit the least frequent) is what happens if you or a vendor messes up your login credentials. You can all imagine the situation: you try to log in one morning and you get told that one of your passwords is wrong, or the software asks you to re-authenticate using one of your “memorable phrases,” and your phrase turns out to be less memorable than you thought.

With one of my cloud service vendors, that’s just what happened: I got locked out of certain areas of my account, and the vendor refused point blank to take the required steps to re-authenticate me. I was unable to satisfy them with the data they required in their online form, most probably because I couldn’t remember the month and year in which I originally joined the service, around a decade earlier, or which of my many email addresses I used at the time – but I can’t be sure.

And no, this wasn’t a small, fly-by-night operator: this was Microsoft. I actually had to stop using my old account (which still exists, by the way: they are unable/unwilling to delete it) and open a new one. Now losing a Skype account wasn’t the end of the world. I shudder to think how I would deal with the situation if this happened to my accounting system, or web host, or Gmail.

And that, by the way, is without considering the possibility of criminal malice: although, thank goodness, I’ve never personally had my identity stolen, I’ve watched it happen to one of my employees (who had a common first name and whose surname was Smith, which didn’t help) and I can assure you that it was a truly horrific experience.

So before you dive into the Cloud, here are three questions you should ask:

  1. What strategy do you support for me to back up and restore my data? (And while we’re on the subject, if I wish to move my data to another provider, how is that supported).
  2. If I hit a bug in my installation, what guarantees and timescales can you provide me that you will (a) provide a fix to get me up and running, and (b) fix the problem permanently?
  3. What, if any, data do you require me to hold to guarantee that, in the event of my being denied access to the system (whether because of identity theft or just my own forgetfulness), you will accept or replace my user credentials ?

The chances are that the answers to these will be something along the lines of (1) you don’t need to back up your data because we guarantee you 99.999% uptime; (2) our technical support team is available to help you 24/7 but we don’t provide specific guarantees and (3) we don’t publish security-sensitive information of this sort.  If they are and you’re a large organisation, you will need to write a set of large, ugly items into your corporate risk register.

Or, if you’re a small business, just lose some sleep.

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