In our last article we spoke about getting the most from your practice management software and the benefits of using ‘cloud software’ over ‘desktop software’. Yes, you should definitely look at cloud software if you wish to take advantage of all the benefits, but being cloud software doesn’t in itself mean it is of a high quality or that it will be of the most benefit to your business.
Choosing the right software to run your practice is crucial, and because of this you need to know what to look for and the pitfalls to avoid.
Just like the older desktop based software could be created in different languages and use various technologies, so too can cloud software.
While cloud software removes some of the disadvantages of desktop (or windows) based software such as PC requirements, installation and updates etc, it in turn can open the door to some new problems if not carefully researched, such as:
- The speed of the hosting computer and it’s physical location
- The experience (with web application development) of the software developers
- The database system used to hold the data
- Mission critical backups
- Data encryption and security measures
- System redundancy in the event of failure
These are merely some of the more critical areas to be wary of when choosing your cloud software provider. Let’s go through what these mean and what you can do to make sure you’re getting the best options available.
The speed of the hosting computer and it’s physical location
When you’re using cloud software, a lot of what you do needs to be sent from your computer to the host computer, where it is processed and then sent back via the internet to your computer. This is where the issue of speed and location come into play.
First, let’s look at the speed of the hosting computer. If the hosting computer is slow, then chances are it will take longer to process your data and generate the reply which needs to be returned to you. There is nothing worse than sitting in front of your screen waiting for your page to update. Something that can affect the speed of the hosting computer is the type of hosting server it resides on.
So, what are the types and which ones are good? The main types are:
- GOOD – Dedicated server or Virtual Private Server – These are servers (computers) that have their own resources so the software has full usage of the server for all requests. They are expensive but well worth the money for the performance they provide.
- BAD – Shared hosting – This is the ‘cheap’ option, where a server can be hosting many websites/applications at once, so each request is shared amongst all the other people who are using it. This results in horrible performance and should be avoided at all costs.
Ok, now that we know we want a Dedicated or Virtual Private server, let’s look at the physical location.
There’s not much point in having a fast server if the information it sends and receives needs to travel to the other side of the world and back. Imagine having to wait every time your page updates while the information travels from Australia to some far away country and back (like the Netherlands for example). Yes, the data can travel somewhat quickly between countries but it will never be as fast as information being passed locally (ie: Australia).
So, the answer to the physical location is Australia – always ensure your provider’s software is hosted in Australia.
The experience and location of the software developers
Due to the slow demise of desktop based software in preference of cloud software, many old developers are now trying to make the switch only to discover that they need to make some remarkable changes in how they approach software development.
This is a lot to take in and new developers in this area soon find they have a lot to learn and their first few web based projects will often be littered with bad coding practices and inherent bad design.
Due to this, it could be asking for trouble to choose a developer who has only minimal experience with advanced web application development (unless you like being a ‘test subject’). Instead, find out how much experience they have in the web application development field (not web sites – yes, there is a difference) before you make any decisions.
A good start to gauging the experience of the developer is to look at their website – does it look professional or amateur, do they show screenshots of their software or just clog up their pages with text descriptions without any visuals?
Finally, make sure your software provider doesn’t outsource their development to entities outside Australia. Although employing developers from overseas can be cheap, it is very difficult to ascertain exactly who is developing the software and how experienced they are. In addition to this, it is almost impossible to take legal action in the event of a malicious act by a disgruntled foreign developer due to the legal costs and difficulties of international litigation. We strongly recommend you ask about the credentials and location of all developers of the software before placing your sensitive information in their hands.
The database system used to hold the data
With anaesthetic billing comes a lot of data, with each case being linked to multiple other tables, payment information and more. All of this information/data must be held in a database and the type of database it resides on needs to be robust and fast enough to handle an enormous amount of requests.
Be wary of developers who use Microsoft Access for their database.
Access is designed for low end usage and freezes up as it gets bigger. It is also a lot slower to process data requests as it’s not made for large, complicated queries. This would be fine for desktop based software as it is only holding the data required for 1 anaesthetic group, but cloud software would be catering for many groups and therefore could potentially hold a LOT of data, which would most certainly fall over if it’s held on an Access database.
What you should be looking for is data stored in Microsoft SQL Server or an equivalent. This database system is used by some of the world’s biggest companies and is designed to handle the most demanding situations and an absolutely huge amount of information.
Mission critical backups
Because your data is held on a remote server as opposed to your local computer, it’s imperative that the provider you are entrusting your precious information to is taking every reasonable measure to ensure it is safe. This means providing reliable backups at least daily and that they are held on a remote server. Don’t entrust your important data to anyone who doesn’t take backups seriously.
Data encryption and security measures
Data which is sent over the internet is open to prying eyes unless it is encrypted with a valid security certificate. This is called an SSL (Secure Socket Layer) certificate and is often encrypted with AES-128 bit encryption. Ensure your software provider encrypts everything with a valid certificate from the moment you Log In to the moment you Log Out. You can usually see if a web application page is secure by looking for the padlock symbol on the left side of the address (URL) bar in your browser.
Additionally, it’s important that they understand and take measures to prevent hacking of their software and associated data.
This includes protection of their server with firewalls as well as software coding measures to prevent various forms of hacking and manipulation of vulnerable internet technologies including cookies, URL-querystrings, SQL database queries and more. A good developer will know about these vulnerabilities and plan for them.
System redundancy in the event of failure
If the server your software resides on goes down (as can happen) it is important that the down-time is as short as possible so you can keep using your software. This comes down to the quality of the server, the accessibility of support provided by the server hosting company and the method of data storage used on the server.
For example, if the server data is merely stored on a standard hard disk and the disk fails, then the data may not be retrievable which means the server must be reinstalled from the latest backup copy. This takes time and means a loss of some portion of information and considerable downtime.
If the data is stored on a hard drive array (RAID), then the loss of a hard drive doesn’t matter as the information is still intact and the faulty hard drive can merely be swapped for a new one with NO downtime!
The idea of this article is not to baffle you (the end user) with complicated techno babble. It is merely to inform you that there is a lot more to Cloud Software than just being ‘internet based’ and it is important you choose your software carefully.
So to sum up the questions you should ask when looking at cloud software systems, at a minimum you should ask:
- Is the server hosted in Australia?
- Is the server a Dedicated, Virtual or shared hosting server? (Should be Dedicated or Virtual)
- How long have the developers been developing internet applications (not websites) and do they have any references or previous work to see? (5 years should be the absolute minimum)
- What type of database is used to hold the data? (SQL Server or MySQL are good)
- What do they do for data backups and how often is it done? (Should be done daily)
- Is all the data encrypted? (A security certificate should encrypt everything from Log In to Log Out)
- What security measures have they implemented to combat hacking? (Various – read article)
- What happens if the system loses a hard drive and what is your expected downtime if the server should die? (A ‘High availability’ server is good. Look for RAID disks to minimize data loss)
Hopefully, this short article will provide some degree of enlightenment regarding some of the fundamental features to look for when choosing your cloud software, whether it be for anaesthetic billing or any other task.