8 considerations for peace of mind in the cloud

Everyone is advocating moving business systems to “the cloud”, that amorphous blob of Internet-related “stuff” that we’re supposed to trust with our critical business data. Even worse, we have to entrust our businesses to “cloud providers”, faceless people who build systems out of all that “stuff”. It sounds scary, but it need not be if you do your homework beforehand.

Over the years our team at RentPro have been asked all of the questions which reflect people’s natural reluctance and insecurity about handing off their key data to third parties like ourselves. We’ve shared these questions and answers below to allay the fears you may have, and to offer advice on how to take care of your business and take sensible steps to offset the risks when dealing with any cloud service provider.

1. Who actually owns my data?

Your data is yours; that should never be up for discussion. If any provider says otherwise, don’t walk away; run! But… there are a number of things you need to be aware of. While you use a cloud service it enables you to manage and process your data in various ways, and when you stop using that system you lose the functionality and features that it has been providing. You must export your data before you cancel your account in order to continue to use it because in line with data protection legislation the provider will delete all copies of your data after a short time. Consider the example of your online bank. Your money is always your money – you can withdraw it at any time, print statements, pay bills, export transactions and transfer money to other accounts. However, if you stop using that bank’s services you must withdraw your money and you then lose the ability to make further payments, view statements, etc. You should print off or export all your statements and transaction activity before you leave because you once you cancel your account you cease to be a customer and the bank will no longer provide any services to you.

2. Where is my data physically located?

The cloud might be a mythical place where your data floats round in the ether all day, but from a practical perspective that data must be physically stored somewhere, and you should find out where that place is. While it might not actually matter to you so long as its in safe hands somewhere, there are data privacy implications which are more important in some sectors than others. For example, if your data is stored on servers located within the US that data might be able to be scrutinised by government agencies whereas the same would not happen within the EU. Even worse, some servers may be located in other countries with poor security provisioning, and your (and our) obligations under the Data Protection Act 1998 state that data should not be transferred outside of the European Economic Area unless proper data protection is in place.

Apart from the geographical location, you’ll also want to make sure that the data centre where your data is being stored is adequately secured against physical threats also, e.g. fire, theft or other loss. For the record RentPro’s servers are located within Amazon Web Service’s secure European data centre in Dublin, and although their platform supports mirroring that data into other global regions we do not currently do that.

3. What steps are taken to ensure no unauthorised access to my data?

Any responsible software provider will be taking every possible precaution to safeguard your data, treating your data as if it were their own. At the very least the application itself should be secured using secure certificate technology, the trusted padlock in the browser address bar, and only properly authorised users should have access to that system, usually protected by secure passwords. These passwords should be encrypted when being transferred over the network, and all credentials which are stored in the database should be encrypted also. In RentPro’s systems all passwords are encrypted using one-way algorithms which means that they cannot be reversed and recovered. All sensitive data such as bank account details is stored in encrypted format on our servers and the servers themselves are hosted in the highly secure Amazon Web Services data centre in Dublin, which are extremely well protected both physically and digitally.

4. Can I export my data at any time?

Yes, you can export all of your data at any time, and for your complete peace of mind we would encourage that you do so regularly, e.g. at the end of each month. Make sure that the data can be exported in a commonly used format such as Excel-readable CSV files, or database-ready SQL files. RentPro enables export of account data via the Admin menu at any time. That data should then ideally be backed up locally within your own organisation as part of your standard data backup processes. But, be aware that exports are for your own use and are independent of any software system. They will most likely not be able to be imported directly into another system with some work from a developer, but at least you have a full useful copy of all your data.

5. Can you give me an uptime guarantee?

While people often look for the reassurance of formal service level agreements (SLAs), in the online world where so many components of a cloud-based system are entirely outside the control of the provider these may not be of much practical use. RentPro’s systems are built on the Amazon Web Services infrastructure, a highly resilient and robust platform which offers unrivalled levels of availability globally. Additionally we integrate with other carefully selected third party vendors to leverage services such as highly reliable email delivery, postcode lookups, SMS text services and tenant referencing. Each of these independent providers has the potential to break and affect our system and there’s little if anything we can do about that. In reality we have thankfully had absolutely minimal problems over the six year period that we have been using the AWS platform (typically measured in minutes each year rather than hours), but despite that why would we make promises we may not be able to keep?

The issue of undeliverable promises aside, where uptime guarantees are offered they are always going to be weighted so much in favour of the vendor as to be effectively useless anyway. An admin-intensive claim process will allow a small proportion of the monthly bill to be reclaimed as credit towards future bills.

Even the biggest providers (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) have downtime every so often; the practical consideration should be to seek transparency about outages, whether that is a complete server loss or a critical software bug which renders the application unusable. Check for a regularly updated status page, or news items on the vendor’s website and/or social media highlighting any problems, and reassuring customers about their timely resolution. A small number of service-affecting issues and prompt resolution in the event when they occur is more meaningful than promises of system uptime which can’t realistically be delivered upon in a cloud environment. We are currently working on introducing a service status page for RentPro in the near future to promptly highlight any issues, large or small, to the letting agents and property professionals already using our software, and to give a confident view of our system’s health to prospective customers.

6. How quickly can I get support when I need it?

One of the biggest fears with any remote software provider is not being able to get in touch with a professional support contact if something goes wrong with the system, or indeed if you have questions on how to do something. At RentPro our customer service is something we are continually praised for, both in terms of the speed and efficiency of response and the friendly and professional attitude of our team. Although our support commitment states that all email tickets will be answered within 6 working hours from Monday to Friday (on our most popular RentPro Business plan), our helpdesk performance stats highlight that we answer 85% of tickets within one hour, and 100% of them within 24 hours – that’s including weekends. Benchmarks show that the industry average for first response time to software support tickets is 20 hours; we’re 20 times faster than that!

People often look for the comfort of being able to talk to support staff by phone, but in our experience, and indeed as has been proved across our industry, technical support delivered well can be done much more efficiently by email than by phone. Test it out; raise questions during the day and see how well the support team deals with it, and if you encounter problems in the evening or weekend see how the response times compare. Bear in mind, however, that major issues will be dealt with promptly, whatever the time of day, but minor non-urgent queries may indeed be dealt with the next morning. Rest assured though that if a problem is service-affecting it will have our full attention, as it rightly should have with any professional software vendor.

7. What happens my data when I stop using your system?

Most cloud-based applications are delivered as Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) based on a subscription model. Rather than investing thousands of pounds on buying and installing in-house servers, thousands more on purchasing software licences and then hiring the necessary IT resource to get it all up and running and then to keep it operational, you pay a cloud-based software vendor such as RentPro, to use their system on a pay-as-you-go basis. There is a very attractive low cost of ownership and minimal setup time or cost with this approach which explains its growing popularity.

Of course the glaring question is what happens when you stop paying your subscription? Well, the answer is the obvious one you would expect it to be – when you stop paying, you are no longer a customer so you stop using the system. You’ll need to make sure that you have exported all your necessary data from the system before cancelling your account. Don’t worry, you will be warned before you take this action; you won’t do it by mistake!

The reason why your data is deleted when you cease to be a customer is one of data protection, nothing more sinister. Reputable software vendors like RentPro will be registered with the appropriate data protection authorities, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office in our case, and this obliges the data controller (us) to make sure all customer data is handled securely and responsibly, which includes not retaining data for any longer than is required. When you cease your account we will queue it for deletion within 30 days at which point all identifiable client data will be fully purged from our servers. We do retain our nightly server backups for a rolling period of one year, but these are securely archived off the application servers. Please note that these are used only for disaster recovery purposes and do not allow the restoration of individual accounts.

8. What happens if you go out of business?

Without doubt the most common question we are asked is what happens if we disappear. “Don’t worry, it won’t happen to us” might seem like an acceptable answer from a slick salesman or confident customer support agent until it actually happens and then it’s too late to be ask anyone. Assume that it can indeed happen and in line with the age-old mantra “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst”.

There are two main steps you should consider on this front.Primarily, do your homework when sourcing an organisation to trust your business to in the first place; opt for a company with an established track record rather than a new kid on the block making lots of flash promises. Secondly, take regular exports of your data independently from the system so that it will be possible to salvage your key business data if the worst does come to the worst. If your software-as-a-service provider does go bust then as soon as their server bill comes due their cloud provider, e.g. Amazon Web Services in RentPro’s case, will in turn switch off their services and unfortunately you won’t have access to the system any more. But if you have data exports you will have something to work with to produce statements and account balances, and to allow you to start the process of migrating to a new system. While we at RentPro, having been around for 12 years and continuing to grow, will confidently state that your data is safe with us, you’ll sleep a lot more easily in your bed at night knowing that you have all your data in-house, just in case…

If you have any other questions which we haven’t answered here but which still trouble you, please get in touch and we’ll be happy to answer them for you. If you’re a property manager or letting agent looking for a new or alternative property management solution then please sign up for our free 14-day trial to see how RentPro can help you grow your business today.

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