As more and more charities and libraries move to cloud services, this technology is no longer novel: it's becoming the dominant paradigm in IT.
When TechSoup surveyed NGOs, nonprofits, and charities around the world in 2012, we found that lack of knowledge was the biggest barrier to adopting cloud services. We suspect that it is still a barrier. This article will help you understand what the cloud is and support you in investigating whether cloud solutions are right for your organization. We'll introduce some basic cloud computing terminology and outline some of the advantages and disadvantages to cloud computing.
What Is the Difference Between Cloud-Based and Traditional Software?
The term "cloud computing" refers to a variety of Internet-based computing services. The difference between cloud-based and traditional software is that when you access the cloud, your desktop, laptop, or mobile device 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, Microsoft Edge, 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, cloud services 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) database system is an alternative to running a donor database in your office.
Three Basic Types of Cloud: Infrastructure, Platform, and Software
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 can generally be summarized as infrastructure as a service, platform as a service, and software as a service.
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 server, and support services that are available on demand by the hour or by the MB. Many SaaS applications rely on Amazon Web Services or other IaaS providers.
Cloud-based Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone service is another example of IaaS.
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 from Salesforce, and Microsoft Azure.
Software as a Service (SaaS)
SaaS basically means any Internet-based software or service that you rent, usually on a per-user, per-month basis. It is the most common type of cloud service that small offices use. 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 365, Google Apps, and Salesforce.
Potential Advantages of Cloud Computing
Tierney Smith of TechSoup Canada sums up the advantages nicely: "The move towards the cloud holds a lot of exciting potential for nonprofits of all sizes. Not only are many organizations able to realize cost savings through not having to run and maintain their own server(s) (or pay a consultant to do so), many cloud tools enable new levels of sharing and collaboration, which can transform how we work. We live in a world where our supporters are looking to us for greater transparency and there is an increasing need to partner with other organizations to achieve real impact. Using the right cloud tools can help us break down the barriers we currently face and be the more open, effective, and resilient organizations that we need to be."
Reduced Support and Hardware Needs
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.
Anywhere, Anytime Collaboration
Software as a service can act as a great simplifier for many organizations. If you have staff members working off-site, they can access their work just as easily at home as they can in the office. If they're using a private or secure Wi-Fi connection, there's also 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. People working in the same organization might benefit from team collaboration tools like shared calendars, video conferencing, instant messaging, and file sharing via Office 365.
A Green Choice
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.
Potential Drawbacks of Cloud Computing
Security and Availability
Security and availability are still the main concerns that most people have about relying on cloud-based services.
You've probably heard of the many high-profile news stories 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 on-premises software, most security breaches are attributable to human error. That is one reason why we published our 12 Tips to Being Safer Online.
When thinking about cloud security and availability, 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 perfect, 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.
Cloud Vendors Going Out of Business
Cloud computing is still a 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-time 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, nonproprietary format.
The Need for Reliable Internet Service
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.
Cloud computing is a quickly changing area that will undoubtedly continue to play an increasingly major role for nonprofits, charities, and libraries as well as their IT systems. But which elements of your IT infrastructure you should move into the cloud — and when — will vary a lot from organization to organization.
Finally, because technology is changing constantly, you can't just evaluate cloud solutions once. An issue that may make cloud computing difficult or impossible for you today may be resolved 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.
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