This article was originally published in November 2010 and was updated in 2012 by Elliot Harmon. There is an updated version of this article: What Are the Benefits and Drawbacks of Cloud Computing?
Cloud computing has become big news in the past few years, both in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. TechSoup Global's 2012 Cloud Computing Survey of NGOS, nonprofits, and charities around the world found that 90 percent of respondents are using some type of cloud technology. On the other hand, the survey also found that lack of knowledge is the biggest barrier to adopting cloud services.
This article will help you understand what the cloud is all about and support you in investigating whether cloud solutions are right for your nonprofit or library. We'll introduce some basic cloud computing terminology, outline some of the advantages and disadvantages to cloud computing, and suggest a few cloud-based solutions your organization might want to look into.
What Is Cloud Computing?
The term "cloud computing" refers to a wide variety of Internet-based computing services. The difference between cloud-based and traditional software is that when you access the cloud, your desktop or laptop isn't the thing doing the actual computing. The computing happens in a large datacenter outside your organization, and you simply see the results of it on your own screen. Most cloud computing services are accessed through a web browser like Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, or Google Chrome. You can also use certain cloud services via a dedicated mobile app or through a browser on a smartphone or tablet. Therefore, they don't require users to have sophisticated computers that can run specialized software.
Specifically, "cloud computing" usually refers to a cloud alternative to something that organizations would traditionally manage in-house. For example, a webmail service is a cloud-based alternative to hosting your own email server. A cloud-based constituent relationship management (CRM) system is an alternative to running a donor database in your office.
Basic Types of Cloud Computing
The cloud computing field is commonly broken down into three main layers. The names and definitions of these layers vary slightly from one source to the next, but they boil down to infrastructure as a service, platform as a service, and software as a service. The distinctions among the three have to do with how much control the customer has over the cloud's functionality.
If your organization doesn't write or customize its own software, then your interest in cloud computing will mostly be in software as a service (SaaS), but it's still useful to understand the other options.
Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)
IaaS is the foundation or bottom layer of cloud computing. It includes services like storage, backup, and security. An oft-cited example is Amazon Web Services, which includes database, storage, virtual private servers, and support services that are available on demand by the hour or megabyte. Many SaaS applications rely on Amazon Web Services or other IaaS providers.
Platform as a Service (PaaS)
PaaS is the next level of the cloud. The vendors of PaaS services provide a certain framework and a basic set of functions that customers can customize and use to develop their own applications. Examples of PaaS services include Google App Engine, Force.com, and Microsoft Azure.
Software as a Service (SaaS)
SaaS basically means any Internet-based application (software) or service. Some SaaS applications are highly customizable and you may even need a consultant to help set them up, but they generally don't require specialized knowledge for day-to-day operation and maintenance. Examples of SaaS include Microsoft Office Web Apps, Google Apps, Salesforce, and Microsoft Dynamics CRM, all of which we'll explore in more detail below.
Advantages and Drawbacks of Cloud Computing
As you move more business-critical applications into the cloud, you'll likely find that you don't need to upgrade computers as regularly, and many employees can make do without higher-end computers. That's because the actual computing isn't happening on the computer: A $200 tablet can access your Salesforce and Google Apps accounts just as quickly as a $2,000 premium laptop can. Similarly, you may find that a cloud computing infrastructure requires a smaller IT staff than a traditional IT setup does because your organization won't be managing the software anymore.
Cloud computing solutions are also generally greener than traditional IT because they require less in-office IT equipment. While huge datacenters require a lot of electricity, it's still a lot less than the thousands of office-grade computers it would take to perform the same big tasks. Large cloud computing providers can also optimize their datacenters for energy efficiency much more precisely than manufacturers of desktops and laptops can.
Finally, software as a service can act as a great simplifier for many organizations. If you have staff working off-site, they can access their work just as easily at home as they can in the office, with no need to set up a virtual private network (VPN). What's more, cloud tools can make it easier to collaborate with colleagues from outside the organization. If you're planning an event with staff from another nonprofit, for example, it's easy to create a Basecamp project where everyone can see each other's work. It's often much more difficult — and risky — to give outsiders access to your VPN.
Security and availability are the main concerns that most people have about relying on cloud-based services.
You've probably heard a few high-profile reports of security breaches in cloud-based services. Although you should certainly think about the implications of a breach in your organizational data, you should also consider that in both cloud-based and self-hosted software, most security breaches are attributable to human error.
When thinking about cloud security, you should also have a realistic sense of your current technology situation. Fears about the cloud are sometimes based on a utopian vision of an organization's current situation. Odds are that your security isn't bulletproof, you don't have 100 percent systems uptime, and you may not have staff resources dedicated to IT management. In the cloud, security and management are in the hands of trained, dedicated experts.
Ultimately, as one tech support representative for Microsoft Office Web Apps summed up the situation: "Security has been taken seriously in the development of [Office Web Apps] but we live in an era where major banks, corporations, the White House, and even the FBI have had their security breached by hackers. Decisions on security… have to be taken by users at a personal level."
Cloud computing is a new and quickly-changing field, and there's always the danger that a new company might go out of business or radically change its service. A sudden change in service might not be too detrimental if you were only using the application for a one-off project, but it could be disastrous if you were using it for your entire donor database. When evaluating cloud providers, find out what options you have for backing up and extracting your data. The best services allow you to download your data in a standard, non-proprietary format.
Finally, you will become more dependent on a good Internet connection if you rely on the cloud. As more mission-critical work is done on the Internet, organizations will need much more bandwidth and few, if any, failures in Internet connectivity. If consistent Internet access, connection speed, or bandwidth are problems for your organization, cloud solutions may not be right for you at this time.
Types of Cloud Applications for Nonprofits
General Office Software
Google Drive (previously Google Docs) is one of the best-known cloud computing services, offering the ability to create and collaborate on simple documents, spreadsheets, and presentations over the Internet.
Zoho Docs is one of a handful of services offering similar functionality. Microsoft Office Web Apps is another, but Office Web Apps bridges the divide between the desktop and the cloud, letting Web Apps users and standard Microsoft Office users share documents and collaborate with each other.
Popular examples: Google Drive, Zoho Docs, Office Web Apps
More information: Comparing Online vs. Traditional Office Software; What Your Organization Should Know About Office 2010
Email and Scheduling
Through Google's service Google Apps, Google can host the email for your web domain. Your staff can access its organizational email using the same look-and-feel as Google's Gmail service, but you retain administrative controls over every account in the domain. Staff can also use the service to book conference rooms and send each other appointment requests.
Google Apps is free to U.S. 501(c)(3) nonprofits with fewer than 3,000 employees. For more information, see Google Apps' nonprofit page.
Popular examples: Google Apps
More information: Email in the Cloud: A Google Apps Case Study; Google Apps 101
CRM databases are among the most popular cloud-based tools for nonprofits. Unlike many traditional CRMs, most cloud CRM systems operate on a simple, per-user pricing model. This makes it easier, and likely less expensive, to change the number of users who can access the database as your needs change.
Depending on how your organization is structured and who needs access to your CRM, you may find keeping your CRM in the cloud to be less of a hassle. If your nonprofit or public library has multiple branches throughout a city, then cloud CRM can be a way to collect all of the branches' shared relationships in one place. Some organizations find that simply getting donors, volunteers, institutional funders, and beneficiaries into a single database is a key first step toward improving and streamlining business processes.
Eligible nonprofits can purchase Dynamics CRM Online at $9.99/user/month, with a five-user minimum.
Popular examples: Salesforce, Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online, Zoho CRM, CiviCRM, SugarCRM
More information: CRM in the Cloud: Right for Your Organization?
Some of the most exciting recent developments in cloud computing have been in the realm of project management tools. These tools serve as a shared, online workspace for collaborators on a project. Employees can post updates on their progress and share the most recent versions of documents. Supervisors and project managers can set deadlines for specific deliverables, and the project-management tool can automatically send reminders to the people responsible for meeting those deadlines. Cloud-based project management tools are usually very easy to use and offer an extremely low barrier of entry to collaboration, which makes them a great fit for organizations that frequently engage with volunteers or ally organizations.
Popular examples: Basecamp, Huddle, Zoho Projects
More information: Six Views of Project-Management Software; Can Cloud Computing Change Organizational Boundaries?
Virtual conferencing software brings your employees, volunteers, and funders together, even if they're located in different parts of the country. Web conferencing services let anyone with an Internet connection and browser meet and collaborate online in real time. Different services offer varying degrees of communication features. Some allow you to chat with video while others are simply voice-only.
Popular examples: Citrix Online GoToWebinar, ReadyTalk, Skype, WebEx
More Information: 10 Steps for Planning a Successful Webinar.
File Storage, Sharing, and Syncing
Cloud-based file sharing services allow you to sync and share your files across multiple devices, including your PC, smartphone, or tablet. An advantage to cloud syncing services is that they provide an extra level of back-up and accessibility should something ever happen to your computer. A disadvantage, however, is that most programs do not encrypt files. To protect your data, you might consider using a free encryption tool such as BoxCryptor or TrueCrypt.
Popular examples: Apple iCloud, Microsoft SkyDrive, Huddle, Google Drive, Dropbox, Box, Citrix ShareFile, Box
More Information: How Do You Collaborate with Staff Online?; Reduce Travel with Online Collaboration
A Few Tips for Going into the Cloud
- Transition incrementally. You don't have to jump in with both feet. If you want to just dip your toe in, think about trying a cloud tool that can help address a currently ineffective or challenging process. Good candidates for this kind of experiment include project management, collaboration tools, and online publishing.
- Don't focus on tools first. Focus on your processes and workflows, then select the tools that will help you do your work better.
- Plan for divorce. Think of your vendor agreements as prenuptial agreementss. Make sure you can get your data back out of the cloud.
- Overcommunicate, overcommunicate, overcommunicate. Engage staff at all levels before, during, and after your transition to the cloud.
Cloud computing is a quicklychanging area that will undoubtedly play a major role for nonprofits and libraries. But which elements of your IT infrastructure you should move into the cloud — and when — will vary a lot from organization to organization.
As with any new technology, cloud computing will likely receive a mixed reaction from your staff: Early adopters will welcome it, the more cautious types will resist. Perhaps some members of your team have already taken to the cloud and refuse to send documents the old-fashioned way, while others will drag their feet and insist on using Outlook after you've officially migrated to Google Apps. It's important to keep your staff happy, but it's even more important to make technology decisions based on how they deepen or hinder your nonprofit's impact.
Finally, because the cloud is changing constantly, you can't just evaluate cloud solutions once. An issue that's a deal-breaker for you today may be fixed six months from now. And more cloud tools are being developed all the time. So even if you're not quite ready for the cloud right now, you may find a good cloud solution at a later time.
TechSoup's Cloud Computing Worldwide page includes information, many resources, and nonprofit case studies about cloud computing. Additionally, TechSoup's Global Cloud Computing Survey results provide insight into the state of NGOs and cloud technology around the world.
Image: Cloud, Shutterstock