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Cloud computing basics for nonprofits: Raining pennies from heaven?

Technology expert Vanessa James offers cloud computing basics tailored to the nonprofit IT director.

There is little argument today that cloud-based computing has taken the IT world by storm and continues to gain in popularity, including within the realm of nonprofit organizations.

Unlike the usual small-business-style enterprises, nonprofit organizations are generally not resource rich and usually not terribly fluent in the IT business. We'll walk through some of the cloud computing basics in this first of a two-part series devoted to the particular cloud-based computing needs of small to medium-sized nonprofit agencies.

Vanessa JamesVanessa James

Funds are stretched pretty thinly, especially in today's economic climate -- where giving has markedly decreased or is limited to grant-mandated specific uses. In turn, budgets for nonprofit organization IT expenditures are often small. Choosing the right technology and using IT budgets effectively is crucial to an organization's health and allows CIOs and executive directors to focus on membership and the mission.

Oversight, regulation and protocols for each are much different, as is how they are classed and viewed by governmental agencies and regulators on a state and federal level. Therefore, certain allotments of money are often strictly outlined and dictated by grants for nonprofit organizations. If cloud storage fits within the requirements laid out by the nonprofit organization's grants and funding sources, cloud computing can be a valuable opportunity for nonprofits that have a stretched IT budget.

Advantages of cloud computing

The potential cost savings of cloud storage have inspired many nonprofits to make the jump. Cloud hosting providers handle the pricey hardware, software, services and licensure on their end, so the CIO can avoid a lump-sum investment up front while directing funds toward the organization's mission. The CIO won't have to worry about maintaining and upgrading servers nor the eventual recycling concerns when the server goes to that great IT shop in the sky. While nonprofit CIOs will still need to consider some investments in infrastructure and software licensing, the expense is a fraction of what would be realized with an in-house solution.

Data stored in the cloud is at no greater risk than if it were stored on an Internet-connected local machine.

In turn, the number of in-house technical support "geeks" (god bless 'em!) required to implement, maintain and secure hardware and software is less -- if they're not eliminated entirely -- as the cloud hosting provider oversees much of that work (upgrades, installs, backups, maintenance and so on). By minimizing the IT personnel, the nonprofit organization saves much needed cash.

Then there's the ecological element. The nonprofit CIO requires a very unique balance of technical insight and a desire to make the world a better place. For many nonprofits, the ability to "go green" by using cloud computing is an added benefit. The essence of cloud computing is virtualization, serving multiple users simultaneously and the sharing of resources. Thus, the services that cloud provides are far more efficient and perform with less energy relative to standard, single-user, in-house methods once common to IT. Additionally, the cloud allows for fewer energy-gobbling data centers to handle the load of many, a good option for green-minded nonprofits.

Soft benefits of cloud computing

In addition, consider the convenience factor of cloud computing services. The life of the nonprofit leader is often one full of meetings, functions, travel and other events that require on-the-go access to data and processes. It's pretty common for a nonprofit executive to be working outside the office while still requiring access to data and applications.

With a proper Internet connection, staff and volunteers can log in to the cloud from anywhere in the world and access applications without initiating virtual private networks or requiring remote access to internal servers. Setting up accounts for employees is generally quick and easy. With a modicum of staff training, less-technical employees like office managers can handle sophisticated software pertaining to personnel files, accounting or donor management.

Cloud computing basics

In a nutshell, the term "cloud" is basically interchangeable with the "Internet" and delivers a number of services like servers, applications and storage via the Internet. Thus, hardware and software resources normally housed onsite, and the IT support personnel that often accompany them, are housed remotely in the cloud. The locale where data is stored and maintained could be right around the corner or on the other side of the planet.

Email, content sharing, peer-to-peer network communication and numerous other applications are but a few of the functions facilitated by cloud-based computing. So it goes that nonprofit organizations often use the cloud without even knowing it!

Cloud computing cautions

One of the more pressing issues surrounding cloud-based computing is security -- especially unauthorized access to data deemed sensitive to the organization. Data is vulnerable when it's connected to the Internet. Once it reaches its cloud service provider, it must be separated and confined from the data belonging to the cloud provider's other clients. Sound methods of authenticating the identities of multiple users accessing each set of data is vital, as is assuring that suitable and effective safety measures are present to protect crucial applications and sensitive data should a hardware failure, data breach or natural disaster occur.

Maintaining data integrity is also imperative. Performing regular data backups is fundamental, not only for the chosen vendor but for the organization as well. I recommend having multiple copies in different secure locations as a good failsafe.

Remember that data stored in the cloud is at no greater risk than if it were stored on an Internet-connected local machine as long as the vendor adheres to the cloud computing basics and proper security protocols.

Other costs of cloud computing

Indeed, one of the primary reasons that many nonprofits opt for cloud-based computing is that it's cheaper than building and upgrading an IT system from scratch. That's not to say that it's free, of course. Before jumping into a relationship with a cloud-based services provider, make sure that you understand all the costs during the planning phase of the move to cloud computing services.

  • Be mindful of initial implementation/setup or data transferable fees, as many cloud computing vendors will charge for these.
  • Develop an understanding of all recurring monthly fees for cloud storage, data transfers and anything else that the vendor may charge. These fees -- while generally not substantial enough to sway an agency from making the switch to cloud-based computing -- must be accounted for within the budget from month to month. I recommend that you reconcile those costs against the savings in hardware and software expenditures to get a true picture of the real money that will be spent in the long run.

Nonprofit agencies have the enviable opportunity to make the world a better place -- but with restrictions that often come from working on an extremely governed budget. While cloud-based computing has the opportunity to be a win for agencies with tiny spending accounts, the disadvantages of cloud computing must be taken into consideration as nonprofit directors look to expand or create new technology offerings. With careful adherence to funding and compliance issues, however, cloud service providers can offer the best of both worlds and allow nonprofit organizations to enjoy an enterprise-grade technology experience for a fraction of the cost. It's simply a matter of understanding cloud computing basics and recognizing the risks before soaring with the clouds.

About the author:
Vanessa James is a business technology consultant and blogger. She enjoys reading about new technologies and issues regarding the IT world. Her work has been published on TechRepublic, IT Manager Daily and The Higher Ed CIO blog. Let us know what you think about the story; email Wendy Schuchart, senior site editor. For midmarket IT news and updates throughout the week, follow us on Twitter @ciomidmarket.

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