A decade ago, storing data in the cloud seemed risky. Today, cloud-based, software-as-a-service applications such as G Suite, Office 365, and  Salesforce have made outsourcing data storage simple. But not risk-free. One big issue: With each of them, data is stored in a format that won't work well outside that application. It can make switching from one to another tricky.

Just ask the Intern Group, a startup that places students in international internships. In 2016, the company consolidated its data. Some was in Google Sheets, some was in the customer-relationship management application Highrise, and some was in a second CRM app, Contactually. Intern Group wanted to consolidate within Vtiger, yet another cloud CRM app.

Moving databases was hard enough--and then there were the emails. "We have partnerships with universities," explains Kevin Harper, director of technology and operations. "Think about relationship building--there's a long email history."

The Data Goliaths
Bet your company uses at least one of these. Have you considered what it would take to pry your data away from them?
5 million
Number of paying businesses for G Suite, Google's powerful collection of productivity products.
Source: Cloud.Google.com
135
Number, in millions, of monthly users of Office 365, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently told analysts.
Source: Reuters
150,000
Number of companies that use Salesforce, often cited as the world's largest software-as-a-service provider.
Source: SalesInside
33.2
Percentage of global blogs hosted by WordPress.com, a company that hosts websites and blogs built with Wordpress, an open-source application for building websites.
Source: W3 Techs
10 million
Number of daily users of Slack. It has more than 70,000 customer companies--including Inc.
Source: Reuters

Highrise returned those emails in an unusable form. "Every single email we ever had with a particular partner, we got it back in one really long text file," he says. Frustrated, Harper hired a developer to write code that would convert the emails into a usable format, which cost about $5,500. Next time, he says, he'll find out in detail what will happen if Intern Group wants its data back before signing with any cloud software company.

Sometimes, switching isn't worth it. This became clear to key-duplication firm minuteKey, which hosts its applications on Amazon Web Services. In 2018, minuteKey was acquired by the Hillman Group, which uses Microsoft Azure. Senior vice president of IT Scott Moore says he was facing six months of development work to move minuteKey's data over to Azure. "It crossed our minds to do it and quickly left," he says. Instead, the companies use integration software that lets their two environments work together securely. "When you're a startup, it's easy to do things in the cloud," Moore says. "But, like it or not, you're buying into their solution."

1. Plan for exponential data growth.

Before you sign up with an online storage vendor because its entry level of service is free, consider what will happen when your business grows. "Sooner or later, you will need to change software, and it is your responsibility to research and choose software that allows you to have this flexibility without being a slave to the decision you made years ago," says Cristian Rennella, an engineer and co-founder of the South American insurance and loan shopping site oMelhorTrato.com (trans­lation: "the best deal").

Rennella learned this lesson the hard way. He says his company spent weeks moving 21 million records when it switched from Salesforce to the CRM software Pipedrive. Part of the problem was that Salesforce allows for "general" fields that were being used as a catchall for customer information. That data had to be parsed into specific fields in Pipedrive. It was a heavily manual process that led to many errors and lost customers. Between the work and the lost business, Rennella estimates, the switch wound up costing about $45,000.

2. Create an exit strategy.

Before signing up with any software provider, especially one in the cloud, find out what it would take to get your data out in a usable form. Some software com­panies will charge you for the time and effort it takes them to extract your data and return it to you on a shared file service, such as Dropbox, or mail you a hard drive.

"I've seen people charging $150 or $250 an hour," says Jesse Nowlin, CTO at Westland Real Estate Group and co-founder of tabGeeks, an online community for IT support professionals that also hosts events and conferences. He recommends getting information in writing as to what will happen if you decide to leave the service--and having a lawyer review software contracts as well.

3. Don't go it alone.

If you decide to switch from one cloud-based software to a new vendor, you probably shouldn't do it yourself. Many companies struggle to move data from one environment to another, so an industry of migration specialists has sprung up. Ideally, you should hire someone with experience doing the same data transfer you plan to undertake.

You could also try asking your new soft­ware company for assistance and advice. That's the approach Nowlin took when he moved his company from one help-desk provider to another. He contacted the new provider and was told it had integration with a third-party tool that could move everything over. "Every help-desk ticket was an email and had tags and attachments," he recalls. "I asked, 'Is there any way to switch all my data over?' They said, 'Absolutely. It'll cost you $150.' It ran over a weekend, and it was done."

 

You have your data. Who else does?

Retrieving data from a former software provider can be a challenge. If that data consists of, say, sewing patterns for last year's fashions, that may be all you need to do. But what if it includes detailed information on customers or employees? If so, you also want to make sure your former software company isn't storing it once you're gone. The more places your data resides, the greater the risk of its being compromised.

You can minimize that risk by reviewing the software provider's security certifications. "All cloud-hosting vendors have very lengthy documents that address the different classifications of security they're certified for," says Tom Novak, IT architect at technology consulting firm SPR. Better yet, before you let an outfit host your data, ask whether it will certify its destruction should you decide to leave. "Once you have moved everything over, you can ask for some kind of certificate that the hard drive containing your data or whatever it was stored on has been destroyed," Novak says.

From the June 2019 issue of Inc. Magazine
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