I recently read a Forbes article about government and the future of cloud. This line caught my attention:
“For many, cloud adoption is no longer an ‘if,’ it's a ‘when.’ The benefits of the public cloud are becoming too great to ignore.”
While I agree with this statement, I’m not so sure human services is as far along as other government programs. Human services is recognized as a top candidate for cloud migration, but there are still plenty of counties and states still in the process of wrapping their heads around what—if any—cloud-based technologies are right for their needs.
I know many of you still have questions and concerns about the cloud, so this post will help address them.
Keep reading for a high-level overview of:
- Benefits of a cloud-based, software as a service (SaaS) solution
- Commonly asked cloud questions we hear from human services agencies
- Additional resources to help you learn more
- A quick overview of Northwoods’ cloud-based solutions
Understanding Your Cloud Options
For starters, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about what we mean when we talk about “cloud.”
This is how we generalize the four licensing (perpetual vs. subscription) and infrastructure (hosted vs. on-premises) categories we typically discuss with agencies.
SaaS (software as a service): a hosted solution with an annual or monthly subscription, meaning you agency rents software licenses, as well as the servers/infrastructure it runs on.
Subscription: an on-premises solution with an annual or monthly subscription, meaning your agency owns its servers but rents the licenses for your IT solution.
IaaS (infrastructure as a service): a hosted solution with perpetual licenses, meaning your agency rents a virtual server, but owns the licenses for your IT solution.
Traditional: an on-premises solution with perpetual licenses, meaning your agency owns both its servers and software licenses. (Note: A maintenance fee may apply.)
Benefits of Cloud for Human Services
There are several benefits for human services agencies to move toward cloud-based, SaaS solutions:
- Minimal IT support: A cloud solution significantly reduces IT burden, which is typically one of the biggest benefits for small and medium human services agencies with limited IT staff or infrastructure.
- Automatic upgrades: Upgrades, patches, and bug fixes are deployed automatically, so your software will always be up to date and your data will always be backed up.
- Lower upfront cost: SaaS solutions save agencies from paying large, upfront capital expenditures for hardware that will become obsolete within a few years, as well as upfront software licensing costs.
- Lower infrastructure cost: Servers, power, cooling, security – all of these costs add up over time when maintaining an on-premises solution (also known as total cost of ownership). Cloud-based technology, on the other hand, doesn’t require these additional costs. It can also help minimize unexpected long-term costs, like having to buy additional storage.
- Work from anywhere: Remote work and telework are here to stay, so technology needs to be accessible from anywhere and supervisors need real-time visibility into productivity. Cloud-based software makes managing remote and distributed work in real time possible. In addition, cloud products are deployed in a way that they can be used from anywhere without multiple steps to connect (VPN).
- Enhanced security: Reputable SaaS solutions have advanced, built-in security and privacy measures that are especially attractive to agencies who regularly manage personally identifiable information (PII) or access data from the state.
- Easy to implement and use: Cloud-based software that’s purpose-built for human services is intuitive and user-friendly. This lessens the training and support burden on IT, while increasing user adoption, which helps your agency achieve return on investment (ROI) faster.
- Flexibility and scalability: SaaS solutions are built to evolve and improve quickly and continuously. They grow with your agency and adapt with your business processes. This can be especially helpful for human services agencies trying to keep up with ever-changing policies and requirements.
Common Cloud Questions in Human Services
These are the questions we hear most often as we talk to agencies about their cloud options and how Northwoods and our partners can alleviate their concerns:
Who administers the system?
When you purchase a cloud solution from Northwoods, that includes a designated Dev Ops team who’s responsible for administering and monitoring the system. This means we manage the underlying hosted infrastructure, including regular backups, scheduled maintenance, and upgrades, while still giving your agency full control of adding/removing users and changing configuration.
How is the software monitored?
Reputable cloud-hosted solutions will monitor critical metrics such as network status and environmental changes in real time. Monitoring for network intrusions should also be part of the solution. For example, our software Traverse is highly available and monitored 24/7.
Where is the data stored?
We partner with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to store data in secure cloud environments. To secure these environments, we leverage dedicated provisioning, FedRAMP-compliant and HIPAA-compliant services, and all data is encrypted.
What about disaster recovery? What if the data center gets wiped out?
Northwoods has backup and restore procedures that are regularly reviewed and tested to ensure we can recover quickly in the event of a disaster, plus our partnership with AWS ensures minimal turnaround time to get back online.
For example, full backups are taken nightly and transaction log backups are taken every 5 minutes. These backups are stored in multiple AWS data centers in different geographical regions to ensure that if one goes down, we can quickly spin up the same environment somewhere else.
What other security and privacy measures are built in?
We know security and privacy are big concerns, especially for agencies who are regularly accessing data from the state. Honestly, I could write an entire blog post just answering security questions.
Beyond the items we mentioned earlier, the key thing to know is our team follows industry standard controls including SSAE-18 standards that govern how we access, use, and safeguard your data and we regularly audit these controls. Northwoods also goes through an annual SOC2 audit.
What happens when we need to make changes?
That depends on whether you’re using a configurable, commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) product or something that’s been custom-built for your agency. A cloud-based, COTS product is flexible and can be tailored to your agency’s needs. Since changes are made through configuration, not customization (which requires developers and custom coding), it’s easier to make changes as needed with considerably less resources.
How is the solution trained and supported?
Cloud-based technology in general doesn’t require a ton of training because of its intuitive nature. Self-service support is often provided in the software itself, with options for live chat or video chat with experts when needed. Northwoods provides our SaaS customers with ongoing resources, guidance, in-app education and support, and live chat to help your team meet your goals and get long-term value from the software.
What else should we do to prepare to move to a cloud-based solution?
The specific answer depends on the type of technology you’re considering and other move-to-cloud initiatives your agency already has in place, but I’ll provide a few examples of things we discuss with agencies considering Traverse for content management and data collection.
If you’re paper-based, start converting your paper files to digital images so they can easily be added to the system well before it goes live. Or for those with an existing document management system, think about how you’ll export/import from one system to the other. Additionally, consider what integrations you’ll need and if the new solution requires changes to security to access data sources, especially those that remain on-premises.
Keep in mind that no two transitions are the same, which is why it’s important to have a vendor that will guide you through the process. A Northwoods SaaS solution includes expert services to help ensure your data remains accessible, accurate, and secure.
What does it cost?
The honest answer is: it depends. The important thing to remember is that a cloud solution takes the onus off county or state resources and you won’t have to invest in hardware, servers, or operating systems that will quickly become obsolete and create unexpected long-term costs—for example, having to buy additional storage. (Related resource: Technology Toolkit: An Essential Buyer's Guide for Human Services)
Additional Resources for Agencies
Still have questions about cloud? Here are a few articles and webinars that may help:
- Cloud Technology for Human and Social Services: The Guide to Getting It Right [Northwoods]—Explore how and why to take advantage of cloud technology and how to evaluate your options through a human services lens.
- Back to Basics: Cloud 101 [AWS]—This video and resource page is a good refresher on the benefits of the cloud, with a few examples of how government organizations work with AWS. (Related read from AWS: How Technology and the Cloud Bring Transparency to Citizen Data)
- How to Tech Series: Cloud [Route Fifty]—Hear from technology leaders at different stages in their cloud adoption journey to learn about identifying goals and defining your cloud strategy, choosing the correct cloud model, ensuring cloud security, and innovating in the cloud.
- The Non-Technical Guide to Cloud Advantages for Government [GovTech]—This eBook explains the main benefits of cloud technology in non-technical terms and describes what to look for in cloud software vendors.
- Government in the Cloud: Adoption Has Become Safer and Smarter [Forbes]—This blog summarizes how government adoption of cloud continues to evolve, plus key steps and questions that organizations and agencies should consider throughout their cloud journey.
- Solving the Cloud Conundrum: Security, Procurement, Workforce [GovLoop]—The guide debunks common myths about the cloud and helps agencies of all sizes think about key strategies to consider when evaluating and implementing cloud technologies.
- Government Cloud: A Mission Accelerator for Future Innovation [Deloitte]—This blog explores how cloud can deliver value beyond cost-savings and shares four building blocks to ensure organizations realize the full benefits of their investments.
Meet Northwoods' Cloud Software Solutions for Human and Social Services
Want to learn more about Northwoods’ cloud-based, purpose-built technology solutions?
- See how Traverse, our document management, forms management, and mobility software, supports programs that require case management, including adult & aging, child welfare, and economic assistance.
- Take a tour of popular features to see Traverse in action.
What other cloud questions or concerns do you have? Feel free to reach out to discuss if one of Northwoods’ solutions is right for you.