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Cloud collaboration tools cut costs at the U.S. Golf Association

Cloud collaboration tools were the start of the USGA's cloud migration strategy -- bringing cost savings, business continuity and customizable CRM to the association.

Jessica Carroll is not a golfer, but she makes it her business to know everything about the United States Golf Association's (USGA) activities, from writing the rules of golf to researching turf grass to extending grant opportunities to 1,500 golfing communities in 110 state and regional golf associations. As managing director of information technology, "my job is not to sit in the back corner room and run servers," she said, "but to figure out how we can collaborate and work together."

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As part of that collaboration, Carroll for many years held meetings to teach representatives from the state and regional golf associations how to use technology to streamline operations so they could focus on golf outreach. The meetings were held at the USGA's headquarters in Far Hills, N.J. "I would put together a few days of courses on whatever technology was relevant that year," Carroll said. "The classes were free; the only caveat was that they had to get here." But for all her preparation, 20 people would show up. "The cost associated with travel became an issue," she said.

Then Carroll discovered cloud collaboration tools, a Software as a Service (SaaS) category that includes Cisco Systems Inc.'s WebEx, Citrix Online LLC's GoToMeeting and Microsoft's Live Meeting. The USGA chose to go with Live Meeting, which transformed her efforts.

"In 2006, holding a three-day set of workshops in the cloud was unheard of, especially with the people and in the space in which I worked," she said. Yet the online meetings immediately quadrupled the number of attendees. "It was a tremendous move for us to collaborate with larger groups over the Web using Software as a Service."

Following Carroll's lead, other groups within the USGA soon began reaching out to thousands of volunteers over the Web and saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. The IT department, meanwhile, continues to exploit the cloud's capacity for business continuity, production applications and multimedia storage.

The golf association's experience with cloud collaboration tools is indicative of a nationwide trend that gained steam last year, according to TJ Keitt, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. "The economic downturn put a premium on corporate cost-cutting, which translated into travel reductions," Keitt wrote in a report titled "Making the SaaS and Collaboration Marriage Work." Seventy-one percent of firms in the U.S. will be at some stage of adoption, piloting or production of collaboration software in the next 12 months, according to Keitt's research.

Cloud collaboration cuts costs

You may think that turf grass research isn't rocket science, but it is the foundation for the game of golf. By reaching out to universities, college students, golf clubs and golf course superintendents over the Web, the USGA's turfgrass and environmental research department reduced its travel expenditures by $250,000.

It was a tremendous move for us to collaborate with larger groups over the Web using Software as a Service.
Jessica Carroll
managing director of information technologyUnited States Golf Association

"For our group, that number is huge; other corporations could see exponential savings," Carroll said. "It was a smart move economically, and yet, instead of cutting back on outreach, we extended that." Suitably impressed, the USGA's communications infrastructure is now 100% in the cloud; there is no internal software deployment for meetings, and "zero effort on our tech team," she said.

There are still 70 servers at the organization serving production needs and each of the 350 employees has a desktop PC. Carroll said she expects that infrastructure to shrink significantly during the next 12 to 24 months as the USGA drives toward the cloud and virtualization. Its business resiliency strategy, for example, is centered on IBM's Smart Business Storage Cloud, a move that Carroll said is the most important thing she has done at the organization in 21 years.

With disaster recovery, it's not about cost savings, she said. "I'm paying money to do this; it's insurance. But it wasn't a number that was uncomfortable for our budget." Prior to the cloud continuity strategy, the USGA sent tapes out weekly for disaster recovery. Being able to recover data that is only as old as yesterday is significantly valuable, she said. The nightly push includes domain controllers, data, "core elements -- anything I need to get back," she said.

Collaboration tools lead to CRM in the cloud

High on cloud successes, Carroll also developed a cloud-based, self-service customer relationship management (CRM) system that the state and regional golf associations can use to track members, tee times, golf cart rentals and other operational data. She evaluated many vendors and eventually chose Microsoft Corp., which agreed to help customize the CRM system and host it "in a way that fit what we were trying to do," Carroll said.

The cloud was "a huge factor" in making the CRM possible because of its pay-per-use model, Carroll said. "What I think [the state and regional golf associations] like about it is it's their choice about how deep they want to go with the product. We found an answer for them, but they have control in the end."

Next up for the USGA's cloud efforts: An application development and test environment, as well as multimedia storage for photos and video of championships including the U.S. Open, going back to 1954. "We have tons of video -- never mind pictures. I don't even want to tell you where they are right now," Carroll said. Cloud storage may be an affordable option to pricey on-premise storage: "We priced an internal SAN, and for one petabyte, it would have cost $300 million. I can't do that."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Laura Smith, Features Writer.

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