Cloud 101 for Real Estate Brokerages: Words to Live By

By Adam Stern | CRETECH

In my view, the IT vendor’s proper role is to showcase the powerful economic rationale for those in the real estate field to get out of the practice of buying/maintaining hardware that is obsolete practically before the paint is dry. And then to set an example, through grounded, customer-centric initiatives designed to simplify the cloud for these organizations – things like “on-boarding” services, aimed at eliminating the fear factor from the cloud migration process.

The cloud may be easier and more affordable than advertised but it isn’t free.  Still, compute horsepower is finally a virtual – or, perhaps more appropriately, a virtualization — bargain. It’s entirely possible for a real estate broker to spend $10K a month and tap enough compute power to drive a 1,000-user organization. That’s less than the cost of hiring a single engineer (even if it may sound like overkill).

The market is now awash in Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) tools and technologies, empowering real estate brokerages that may lack traditional IT resources to still benefit of remarkably robust products and platforms – and perhaps gain a little independence from vendors.  Savvy virtualization providers have already done the heavy lifting for some brokerages, with solutions that they can deploy largely on their own.

For growing real estate businesses, of course, it’s essential that applications and data be placed in a maximum security environment — the allusion to penology isn’t coincidental. Hosting plans should be designed expressly to deliver both data integrity and data protection, deploying technologies such as clustered firewalls and intrusion detection and prevention software, which is capable of detecting threats to sensitive client data that even the best firewall won’t catch.  And as cyber threats become ever more insidious, real estate professionals are looking to implement systems that go well beyond basic malware and antivirus “solutions.”

In IT, as in real estate, language is everything.  Selling residential or commercial property is tough enough; most brokerages would prefer not to wade into the fog of IT, especially given just how obtuse the tech world has become.  For those real estate agencies making the shift from an in-house solution to the cloud, getting the language right is Job #1.  Familiarizing yourself with some basic terminology won’t turn you into an expert but it can provide a grounding in the fundamentals – which can, in turn, make you into a wiser IT consumer and perhaps a more savvy user. 

With that in mind, let’s look under the hood and decipher some of the more pervasive – and vexing – terms of art.  Without further ado, here are a few words for you, and your business, to live by:

Public Cloud?  Private Cloud? Hybrid Cloud? 

As the cloud has expanded, it more or less subdivided –private (that is, proprietary or internal to one organization), public (in which service providers make applications and storage available to any business over the Internet, typically for a monthly usage fee) and hybrid (a blend of both).  Put another way, some of your workload is under your control, some outside of your control and some situations mix the two.  These days, the hybrid cloud is ubiquitous. The majority of organizations rely on servers and computers, and some data resides on various desktops; some is stored with Apple or Dropbox or Microsoft, and some organizations have embraced Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) or Software as a Service (SaaS); see below.

The right question isn’t, “Should I go on or off premises? Should I opt for the hybrid cloud, the public cloud, or a private cloud?” The smart question is, “what’s strategically best for my brokerage?”  When you frame the query in that manner, you can determine where to place your compute power, and you begin to gain control over the dynamic. Want to reduce costs? Increase efficiencies? Achieve some other objective?  Go back to basics. First, decide what your metrics are and how they serve the business – then select the technology. 

SaaS, IaaS. PaaS.

At its most basic level, IaaS enables real estate agencies to move all or part of their compute environment to the cloud (that is, off premises), and to make the migration without modifying any of their existing applications. The market is now awash in IaaS tools and technologies, empowering brokerages who may lack traditional computing resources to benefit from robust products and platforms.  

In the mushrooming world of the cloud, IaaS is distinguished from two other “as a service” models – Software as a Service (SaaS) and Platform as a Service(PaaS).  Without getting mired in terminology, SaaS is essentially a software rental model, where individual applications are hosted – again, off-premises – for a monthly subscription fee.  All users need is a web browser and they’re good to go.

Platform as a Service, PaaS, is somewhat more ambitious while remaining steadfastly user- (and application-) specific.  PaaS is ideal for real estate brokerages (read: home offices) writing applications that are specific to their business – and they don’t need to build and maintain the infrastructure usually required to develop and launch an app (it may be obvious, but smallish real estate agencies probably shouldn’t try this at home).  PaaS makes it possible, even easy, to develop applications rapidly with little technical know-how – applications that aren’t intended to be sold but that run on a single, captive platform. If the platform for which the app was written changes or ceases to exist, however, users are out of luck.  With PaaS, internal development teams are compelled to ride the IT rollercoaster, forever investing and reinvesting in platform-specific application development.

The Mnemonics of Security.

For real estate firms operating in today’s cyber-minefield, security is process, not an event — a mindset, not a matter of checking boxes and moving on, as one might on DocuSign instructions.  Sound security planning requires assessing threats, choosing tools to meet those threats, implementing those tools, assessing the effectiveness of the tools implemented – and repeating this process on an ongoing basis.

At minimum, what steps must real estate agencies take?  Measures like clustered firewalls, multi-factor authentication – that is, “layered” passwords — and intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDPS), which go above and beyond traditional firewalls.  Increasingly, threats are emanating from Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks on hosting providers and from massive volumetric attacks.  These attacks are something new and particularly troubling, and no single firewall can stop them – especially when the attacks originate from connected devices. 

This is necessarily a teaser more than a proper primer – a very brief sampling of the jargon that typically separates the IT realm from the world of adjustable rate mortgages and escrow instructions. The more you know, the more you’re in a position to bring those worlds together, for your brokerage and for your clients.