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Cloud Basics for Nonprofits and Libraries

Considering the cloud? What organizations should know before making the plunge

By: Jim Lynch

November 2, 2010

What Is the Cloud?

In Anna Jaeger's definitive GreenTech Initiative blog post, Why Should Nonprofits Care About Cloud Computing?, she uses the following definition of cloud computing:

"Essentially, cloud computing enables computer software and hardware resources to be accessed over the Internet without the need to have any detailed or specific knowledge of the infrastructure used to deliver the resources. You really don't need to know what the phone or electric company does on their end to enable calls and make the lights to go on when you flip the switch; and, you really don't want to know as long as it works."

She goes on to explain that cloud computing, is managed IT software or services that reside on the Internet, and are available at no cost, pay-per-use, or by subscription or monthly fee to users. The services you use are provided by someone else and managed on your behalf.

You may not even realize that you're already likely using some cloud services at your organization. Indeed many are widely used with services like Google's Gmail or Yahoo mail, Google Apps, Microsoft Office Web Apps and the array of Microsoft Live services, Flickr, YouTube, and Salesforce.com.

These are examples of some the most easily accessible types of cloud computing to nonprofits and libraries and are in the area of software as a service (SaaS) in which a company provides access to their software applications over the Internet and users access it through their web browser. It also includes applications that people develop (or have developed) that are hosted outside their network.

Basic Types of Cloud Computing

The cloud computing field is commonly segmented in to layers or ontologies. Forrester Research has done considerable work to define the various cloud layers in reports like, TechRadar for Infrastructure and Operations Professionals: Cloud Computing, Q3 2009. The Forrester reports identify 24 layers of cloud-based services, most of which are in the software as a service (or SaaS) area of cloud computing. This is one of the three main levels of the cloud computing.

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)

Infrastructure as a service (IaaS) is the foundation or bottom layer of cloud computing, and includes services like storage, backup, disaster recovery, databases, and security. An oft-cited example is Amazon Web Services, which includes scalable database, storage, virtual private servers, and support services that are available on demand by the hour or megabyte.

Platform as a Service (PaaS)

Platform as a service (PaaS) is the next level of the cloud. It is most often used for organizations that are developing or modifying their own software applications. PaaS supports software development processes, including prototyping, developing, testing, deploying, and hosting. Cloud platform services are usually pre-configured with a given operating environment like Windows or Linux. Examples of PaaS type services include Google App Engine, Force.com, and Microsoft Azure.

Software as a Service (SaaS)

SaaS is the top level of the cloud where software applications or your data are hosted on the Internet. The term basically means almost any Internet-based application or service. SaaS is roughly equivalent to an older term, application service provider (ASP) that was in common use in the early 2000s. ZDNet identifies two essential characteristics of SaaS: hosting and subscription. "The software runs (or is hosted) on the provider's premises, not the customers', and payment is by subscription spread over the term of the contract rather than as an upfront license fee." The availability, functionality, integrity, operation, and maintenance of system are the responsibility of the cloud provider.

This level of the cloud is the one most easily accessed by nonprofits and libraries because they require relatively little development, training, or IT staff from within the organization to get it up and running.

Advantages and Drawbacks to Cloud Computing

Advantages

Cloud computing is regarded as a generally green IT field because it tends to decrease the amount of IT infrastructure that an office needs because computing power is shared and concentrated more in high efficiency datacenters and less in the millions of office computer networks.

As nonprofit offices and libraries rely more and more on cloud services, you will need less power and lower-cost PCs because most computing will take place on the Internet, using the third-party host's more efficient datacenters. This is because companies with cloud offerings like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon can process the same workload with a lot less power than millions of offices can with their in-house computer systems. The big cloud companies are also building increasingly green datacenters like the new one that Yahoo! recently opened in New York that needs limited cooling and receives its electricity primarily from hydroelectricity generation. The new cloud computing companies have developed economies of scale far beyond what most companies can achieve with their own systems.

Finally, for nonprofits and libraries, the number of IT support personnel will also tend to decrease because network maintenance will simplify over time and fewer workers means less office space needed and more salary lines saved for use on your programs or delivering services to your community. All types of cloud computing are what we'd call "elastic" in that they can be ramped up or scaled down to meet your needs. This means, you can add another user to Google Apps with ease, rather than having to purchase or request another license to install the software on a new user's computer.

From Anna's piece, "According to Zen and the Art of Nonprofit Technology, the basic advantage of cloud computing is that people don't have to maintain infrastructure for applications, which saves labor costs, as well as electricity costs. Also, people can access the applications anywhere they have a computer and Internet access."

Drawbacks

Security and availability are the main concerns that most people have about relying more and more on cloud-based services. Simply put, it's hard to know that the data you put in and take out of the cloud is confidential and will not be tampered with. Again, to reference Anna's piece, "The disadvantages to cloud computing are mainly that users are dependent on the companies that host applications to maintain them and also to keep user data intact and protected. Changes in applications often happen without user knowledge or consent, and user data is controlled as well by the host company." Internet security is a deep and complex subject, but TechSoup's Richard Collins has written a basic intro to the subject in his article, Security in the Cloud, This is a particularly important topic for organizations that need to store sensitive personal and client data.

Finally, while your office may gradually come to rely less on your local computer network, you will become more dependent on your Internet connection. As more mission-critical work is done on the Internet, organizations will need much more bandwidth and will need to assure that Internet connectivity has few, if any, failures.

The Future of the Cloud for Nonprofits

Lastly, here are five trends I see for the future of the cloud where nonprofits and libraries are concerned.

  1. More and more applications and IT services are moving to the cloud, so it's offering more IT choices and hence is making IT decisions more complicated and more confusing. Some cloud-based services like webhosting, HR services, and conferencing (like Skype) are already well developed in the cloud, while others like security and IT service and maintenance will take longer to develop. You might consider plugging more in to online social networks and also the TechSoup Community Forums to ask questions about which services are appropriate to your specific situation.
  2. For the next 6 to 8 years we'll be in a state of hybrid cloud adoption, so for instance, more people will be using both "on premises" and cloud versions of standard office software like Microsoft Office, or a combination of the installed software and a different online collaboration or document-sharing suite. The way people use computers will change toward easier collaboration and sharing and better access to the office anywhere you are. You might consider developing more robust management capacity to supervise and support a remote and more mobile workforce. Read more about teleworking here: The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation report on Improving Quality of Life Through Telecommuting (PDF).
  3. The cloud hype promises to do many things like reduce software and IT staffing costs. In the next 6 to 8 years, nonprofits will probably not be reducing software and IT staffing costs very much - particularly if you've been able to receive donated software applications through TechSoup, where most nonprofits and public libraries can save dramatically from what retail costs would be for the same applications. Migration to cloud software and services will be gradual and costs will be shifting, but not going down much; at least not right away. If you've not been eligible to receive donated software, then the costs will generally be much less expensive to move to the cloud. You'll probably being paying more in monthly fees, and less in buying software packages.
  4. There is not yet an IT system that is fully hosted in the cloud (for example, you just get your computers to the Internet and everything you need for day-to-day functions is hosted there), though platform as a service attempts to address this. Cloud adoption will be gradual. For instance, you might find a database service that is useful, or an online meeting service like ReadyTalk, or begin using cloud-based storage like Windows Live SkyDrive. As time goes on you'll probably be using more cloud based IT software and services and fewer "on premises" software and services.
  5. IT hardware costs will gradually go down for nonprofits over the next 6 to 8 years. You will probably need fewer on premises server computers, and less robust and expensive desktop or laptop computers as more of your work is online. However, the cost of servers may go up as fewer organizations and companies need to use them, and they end up being designed for a higher-level niche. We'll be covering this field much more extensively in TechSoup's GreenTech program.

About the Author:

Jim Lynch is TechSoup’s director of Computer Recycling & Reuse. He also co-founded TechSoup.org’s GreenTech Initiative which builds upon the organization’s current work in computer recycling and reuse, and expands it to educate nonprofits in the benefits of “going green” in terms of their IT usage.