Checklist: Choosing An Online Software Provider

Using online software makes sense for small businesses, but there are important considerations to bear in mind. Don't start buying until you've worked through this checklist.

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Last week, we discussed why the cloud makes sense for small business. Once you've made that decision, you can start assessing the options. Keep these issues in mind before signing up.

1. Make sure your internet connection is up to scratch

Unless you're working with large video and design files, you don't necessary need a massively fast connection. What you do need is a reliable connection. If you aren't online and you're using a cloud-based service, for the most part you won't be working. A business-grade ISP should offer you a priority number for reporting faults, and a clear estimate of when things will be fixed when things go wrong. (Having a prepaid wireless mobile device can also ensure you've got a connection if there's unexpected issues — if a tree falls through the phone line, no amount of yelling will make it come back any faster.)

2. Find out what availability is like

The other availability issue with cloud software is whether the service suffers from outages. Ask the provider what their uptime percentage is. For additional reassurance, do a search on the company and see if other users are complaining on forums, Twitter or Facebook about outages. Any company can suffer occasional problems, but if you're seeing consistent reports of issues, you might want to think twice.

3. Make sure there are data export options

A software package that suits your needs now might not work so well two years down the line. Make sure there's a clear and easy way to export data into a relevant and standardised format if you decide to stop using it. (If a company can't supply you with details of how that would happen and point you to a web site with clear instructions, it's a red flag against using the service.)

4. Find out what backup options exist

Moving into the cloud means day-to-day backup isn't your responsibility, but that doesn't mean ensuring backup and continuity isn't important. Ask your provider how often backups are made and what happens in the event of a problem in their main data centre.

5. Examine contract choices carefully

Online software should give you flexibility and allow you to operate month-to-month, but many companies encourage longer-term contracts by offering a discount. This can make sense, but don't be badgered into signing a long-term contract unless you're sure of the service. If you can, sign up month to month and test things out; you can always take a longer contract down the line.

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