This article was published by Charity Technology Trust, TechSoup's partner in the United Kingdom.
This article was supported by a grant from Symantec Corp.
What does it do? What are the benefits for us? How much does it really cost? How safe is our data? What is the downside? These aren't new questions. Yet they remain the key ones when any organization considers the adoption of a new technology, and that includes cloud computing.
Technologists get excited about new things. It's like looking at a new car. They gaze at the pristine engine, run their hands over the glistening paintwork, and inhale the immaculate upholstery. Then they get inside and start to press all the buttons. Cloud computing has created a whole host of shiny new services to thrill technologists. But for leaders of nonprofits around the world, the marketing hype that has come with these services can be confusing.
In TechSoup's 2012 Global Cloud Computing Survey, 24 percent of NGOs said that they used cloud-based web conferencing. Yet 55 percent said that they used WebEx, Citrix GoToMeeting, ReadyTalk, or Skype, all companies that market their services as cloud-based web conferencing. This difference in response rates probably indicates that many nonprofits don't understand what cloud-based web conferencing actually is. And it makes sense that in that same survey, 60 percent of respondents cited a lack of knowledge as a major barrier to cloud computing adoption.
So how should nonprofits evaluate cloud technologies? You can use the five key questions below to analyze cloud computing services. Answers to these questions will help you understand the true value of these solutions to your organization. This will enable you to decide which services to adopt and how to implement them.
What Does It Do?
The basic definition of a cloud service is that it is delivered over the Internet to a PC or tablet computer that needs no more than a web browser. This means that you can start to use the service almost as soon as you finish the sign-up screen. This may tempt you to adopt a lot of tactical solutions that meet your immediate personal needs. However, other solutions may work better when they are applied to the wider needs of your organization.
Fortunately, most services offer a free trial, sometimes with limits on the functionality or duration. This means that you can really find out what the technology does and how well it does it before you make a commitment. It's worth it to thoroughly investigate each service. Download the features list and read the case studies, and also:
- Try out the different services, and particularly read the information that tells you how the service operates. For instance, Dropbox has a "local sync" feature that speeds up the transfer of files between computers on the same network.
- Use it at different times of the day — its performance may vary when certain parts of the world are at their busiest.
- Consider: What sort of support does the provider offer, particularly if you operate outside office hours or in different parts of the world?
[Editor's Note: TechSoup offers ShareFile from Citrix Online, which also offers the ability to upload and share large files.]
In short, before you adopt it for your organization, understand a service's strengths and its limitations.
What Are the Benefits for Us?
Experimentation with these services is a great way to understand exactly what their capabilities are. But don't simply jump on the first thing you find and try to impose it on everyone.
Use your investigations to draw up a list of what you really need from the technology, what you like, and what you don't like.
Then do a proper evaluation against your strategic needs. Make sure you collaborate with those people in the organization that will have to use it and those people you expect to manage it.
Go through the features list for each option and ask the question: "What does that mean for us?" The answer for many features could well be "nothing." But there will be some answers that trigger new ideas about how you can deliver services or manage your fundraising.
Finally, think about how much complexity you need. Technologists love to add features, but sometimes the simple solutions are the best.
What Does It Really Cost?
Cloud service providers have brought a much greater level of transparency to costs. Almost all offer a per-user per-month pricing structure. This allows an organization to pick from a menu of services and know exactly how much they will cost. No longer do we have to calculate server capacity, hosting costs, and in-house IT team costs, and amortize them over three or five years. All these things are provided for us.
However, all technology requires adaptation. Your staff will still have to learn how to use the new service. You will need to integrate it into your operations and define processes for using it. There will be some administrative tasks to undertake, and the more complex the service is, the more time and training these may need.
Like all technology, these costs could be much greater than the cost of the service itself.
Cloud computing has brought some extremely powerful technology to within the price range of what even the smallest nonprofit can afford. But the most powerful tools are often the most complex to configure to meet your needs. The costs can still be large. Consider the costs in terms of staff time to specify what is needed and to access the requisite skills to turn that into a reality.
You need to identify all the costs and take a long-term view of the lifetime cost of the technology. Remember, once you commit and become reliant on a cloud solution, you are committed to paying the bill for as long as you want to use it. If you don't, the supplier will switch off your access, which would be as disastrous as any system failure.
How Safe Is Our Data?
With cloud solutions, you must entrust your data to a third party. Any good service provider will provide backup and recovery as part of the service. They will also invest considerable sums in deploying the best security technology and hiring the best security experts.
But there's more to think about. Disaster planning still needs to be taken into consideration when it comes to cloud solutions. What if the provider goes bankrupt? If their servers are turned off by the receiver, there goes your data, and getting access thereafter could be very difficult.
As well as assessing the supplier's commercial viability, you need to determine whether you can make your own backup copy of your data. Can you make a regular backup in a reusable format that you can store somewhere else?
The other question here is: Who has access? This is not just a question of how good the security is. If you hold sensitive data, you may need to consider some additional things, including the legal jurisdiction under which your data is held and the implications for who can legally demand access.
This underscores a key point: Read the terms and conditions of service!
You can find more on this topic in the TechSoup blog post What if Cloud Vendors Go Out of Business or Delete Your Account?
What's the Downside?
Salespeople only tell you about the advantages, such as no server ownership, access to enterprise software at low cost, rapid implementation, and so on. But while cloud services offer a lot of benefits, there are some other issues to consider.
Some of those issues are self-evident. For example, does your organization have sufficient Internet bandwidth to support the service? Many services are optimized for bandwidth. However, if you've got 50 people using a 2Mbps ADSL connection, you should consider upgrading your Internet service to one with a higher bandwidth.
Your staff or volunteers may want to use their own computers to access the service from home. If so, you should test the service with all the major browsers. Also, check that your staff can get a decent Internet connection where they live.
If there is a mobile app for the service that you want to use, you should test that on multiple devices as well.
Perhaps the biggest areas that are overlooked in adopting cloud solutions are:
- Migration. You need to get your current data and information from your existing systems into the new system. You need to be sure that this can be done in a cost-effective way.
- Integration. You might have services from a number of different providers and need to get data from one to another on a regular basis. How can you achieve this in a robust and cost-effective manner?
As with the other questions, these things need to be investigated — and, if possible, tested — carefully before you base your organization's strategy on a particular set of services.
Cloud services offer significant benefits for nonprofits. The low cost of entry and rapid implementation of some remarkably powerful services bring unprecedented opportunities to improve many aspects of our organizations. However, you should still thoroughly investigate and evaluate a cloud solution against your true organizational needs, as you would for any other form of technology.
Image: Paul Vallejo / CC BY-NC-ND