By Jason Bramwell
Migrating from a traditional unsecured file room to Cloud backup technology for housing confidential client data was a no-brainer for New Jersey-based WithumSmith+Brown, PC
"The fact that we are a multioffice firm played a significant factor in the decision to migrate to the Cloud seven years ago," James Bourke, CPA, CITP, CFF, partner in charge of firm technology, told AccountingWEB. "This technology has dramatically improved the security and privacy of our client data. In the past, CPAs would store client documents in manual file rooms that were generally unlocked and exposed to anyone with access to the office, such as cleaning and maintenance staff or interns."
While Cloud backup technology drastically reduces the risk of security breaches, it also minimizes disruptions to operations after manmade or natural disasters occur, such as fires or severe storms.
When Hurricane Irene hit New Jersey in August 2011, it caused a power outage at the firm's Morristown and New Brunswick offices. However, the secure IBM data center the firm implemented enabled WithumSmith+Brown employees affected by the outage to not miss a beat.
"Client documents are not stored within a physical location, so employees had the option of traveling to one of our other offices that were up and running or working from home," Bourke said. "The data center is replicated across continents and is accessible 24/7, regardless of climate conditions. Storing documents in a secure data center in the Cloud, in my opinion, is the safest and best method of client file storage."
Tips to Disaster-Proof Your Firm
Having a business continuity blueprint in place can mean the difference between a firm's survival or failure in the wake of a significant fire, flood, or other calamity. According to the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), there are five ways small firms can protect themselves from disasters.
Go digital. When disaster strikes, having records stored in multiple secure locations is crucial. Firms can be diligent about backing up computer files, but it can be useless if recovery disks are stored in the same location as servers. With Cloud-based solutions, firms can get back on their feet quickly using laptops, mobile devices, and home computers, according to Erik Asgeirsson, president and CEO, CPA2Biz, the technology subsidiary of AICPA.
"Make sure your Cloud partners are using best practices to protect your data, though, because not every vendor is the same - and a disaster's aftermath is a terrible time to figure that out," he said in a press release.
James Bourke, CPA, CITP, CFF, partner in charge of technology, WithumSmith+Brown, PC, Red Bank, New Jersey, and Nick Myers, CPA, president, Nick Myers CPA, PC, Joplin, Missouri, offer small accounting firm partners and CPAs four lessons they learned while implementing Cloud backup technology.
1. Get started now and go all or nothing. Don't go to the Cloud with only a portion of your data. If it works for some of it, it will work for all of it.
2. Do your homework on Cloud vendors and competing services. Make sure you research such things as security measures and data center redundancy. Also, don't be afraid to shop various vendors to get the best price for the value offered.
3. Determine your data volume needs. Back up your files that need to be accessed in case of casualty loss.
4. Don't be afraid of change. Migrating to the Cloud involves change. Change isn't easy. Don't let problems along the way stop the migration process.
Employ automated online backups.
In June 2010, an employee at Joplin, Missouri-based firm Nick Myers CPA, PC
had his laptop stolen, and key information stored on the hard drive wasn't available elsewhere. As a result, the firm moved from using external hard drives and storage media to back up information to an automated online backup service.
"Now, there is very little on-site physical external storage; therefore, there is little opportunity for permanent loss of data," firm president Nick Myers, CPA, told AccountingWEB.
Having an online backup service was more critical than ever on May 22, 2011, when an EF-5 tornado struck Joplin, killing 161 people, injuring hundreds more, and destroying thousands of buildings. One of those buildings housed Myers' firm.
"I went to the office an hour after the tornado struck. It was located in the EF-5 area, and it was a pile of rubble - a total loss," he said.
Fortunately, the tornado hit Joplin on a Sunday, so the office was closed. Myers said he either called or e-mailed his employees to determine their safety. All of his employees lived outside of the tornado zone, and none were injured.
Despite having his Joplin office leveled by the tornado, Myers' firm was able to continue operations because of the automated online backup system.
"We moved all operations to an existing satellite office in Anderson, Missouri, which is located about thirty miles south of Joplin," Myers said. "Employees were able to access the online backup system via the Internet at the satellite office."
Myers also made sure both office locations, including his new Joplin office that opened in December 2011, had full basements to provide protection for his staff.
"Providing safety for employees should be your primary concern," he said.
Use laptops. It's difficult trying to cart a monitor, computer tower, keyboard, and mouse out the door when you need to quickly leave the office. Laptops are portable without a significant trade-off in computing power.
Have a virtual meet-up spot for employees. Much like families that pick a spot to meet outside their home to make sure everyone is safe and accounted for during emergencies, firms should have an online gathering spot to share information and begin rebuilding operations - especially if cell service, e-mail, and other means of communication are down for an extended time.
Ease employees' financial worries. Some employees may have lost everything after a disaster, and the last thing they're worrying about is work. Helping to create stability with financial affairs can go a long way in easing workers' minds.
"The number one thing we needed to do was get paychecks into people's hands," Les Nettleton, director of IT, Bourgeois Bennett, LLC, New Orleans, which weathered Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, said in a press release.
Change is never easy - and it proved to be the biggest challenge WithumSmith+Brown faced when it migrated to Cloud backup technology, according to Bourke. He said CPAs had to change the way they store and retrieve data.
"In the past, CPAs would store documents in manual file rooms on-site," Bourke said. "The move to the Cloud now requires CPAs to store confidential and private client information in off-site data centers. CPAs had to establish a comfort level with this process and be disciplined to save all documents in this manner."
WithumSmith+Brown decided not to "back scan" its documents in its manual file room, instead opting to let the file room "die a slow death," he said.
"The day we decided to go to an electronic file room was the day we stopped adding documents to our manual file room. Once we no longer needed the documents on-site, we moved them off-site and used that space to house our staff," Bourke added. "All these process changes involved planning, planning, and more planning. Once the partners and staff saw how easy it was to access data and the security measures that existed, those challenges became a distant memory."
Myers stated the biggest challenge he faced while implementing the automated online backup service was identifying storage requirements and backing up the data files that his employees would need to access.
Size Doesn't Matter
Why would Bourke recommend other small firms use Cloud backup technology? "It actually has nothing to do with size - it's scalable," he says. "The nice thing is the sole practitioner can be on the same platform as the large regional firm and only pay for the portion it needs. That pricing model didn't exist prior to the Cloud."
Myers recommends the technology because it's an economical way to address data loss. "It's one less concern you have to worry about during a time of stress," he said.