I was lucky enough to attend NTEN's Nonprofit Cloud Computing Summit on Monday, August 29. The attendees I chatted with ranged from IT directors to accidental techies to the merely tech curious, all hoping to get a better handle on cloud computing. I was really impressed with the summit: I came away with a much clearer sense of what the cloud is all about, some tips for easing the transition to the cloud, and a good sense of both the opportunities and challenges cloud computing can bring.

If you didn't have a chance to attend the event or watch the livestream, the full session materials and recordings are available here. A few of the ideas that caught my attention are below.

Defining the Cloud

In the very first session, one participant suggested that the term "cloud computing" has unfortunate connotations. He said "Clouds are nebulous, changeable, and ambiguous. The name says it isn't solid yet, it isn't reliable." Part of the problem, I think, is that the term "cloud" is used in a lot of different ways by a lot of different people. A concrete definition helps clear things up here. I personally liked the definition presenter Peter Campbell, of Earthjustice, used: an outsourced platform, application, or suite of applications delivered over the Internet. This includes things like:

  • Outsourced infrastructure: you rent server space and bandwidth to do with as you see fit, such as Amazon's S3.
  • Platforms as a service: you rent server space, bandwidth, and the tools to help you build or customize web-based applications (Salesforce, for example).
  • Full-fledged applications that live in the cloud: for example, Google Docs, Microsoft Office 365, Zoho, or NetSuite.

Cloud Opportunities (The Good Stuff)

There are many potential benefits to using cloud tools. A few that I noted were:

  • Cloud tools facilitate real-time collaboration
  • Cloud tools are often easy to use ("criminally simple," as one presenter put it)
  • The cloud is available anywhere you have an Internet connection. You're not tethered to a particular device or required to set up complicated and expensive remote access tools.
  • Security and management are in the hands of "trained, dedicated experts," which frees you up to focus on your mission, rather than the grunt work of technology maintenance.

Cloud Challenges (The Less Good Stuff)

Of course, there are also challenges and risks in transitioning to the cloud. A few that stood out for me were:

  • Integration: cloud tools don't always integrate well with other tools.
  • Identity Management: you may not be able to use your organization's domain name when using cloud tools.
  • Offline synchronization capabilities aren't very good yet.
  • Finance and funding challenges: cloud services usually can't be capitalized. They're just plain expenses. Presenter Donny Shimamoto of IntrapriseTechKnowlogies provided a helpful introduction to some of the complexities (and opportunities!) involved in financing the cloud.
  • Security is a question in the cloud. My TechSoup colleague Jim Lynch has a great round-up of the summit's cloud security session that I'll add a link to as soon as it's published.
  • The cloud may not be cheaper. The savings are usually in efficiencies, not in dollars.
  • Cloud resources are dependent on an active Internet connection. If this is a problem in your area, cloud solutions may not be right for you.

A Few Tips for Going into the Cloud

  • Don't focus on tools first. Focus on your processes and workflows, then select the tools that will help you do your work better.
  • Have a realistic sense of your current technology situation. Several presenters and attendees noted that fears about the cloud are sometimes based on a "utopian" vision of an organization's current situation. Odds are, your security isn't bulletproof, you don't have 100% systems uptime, and you may not have staff resources dedicated to IT management.
  • Plan for divorce: As Allen Gunn of Aspiration put it, "Nothing lasts forever. Nothing." Think of your vendor agreements as pre-nups. Make sure you can get your data back out of the cloud.
  • Overcommunicate, overcommunicate, overcommunicate. Engage staff at all levels before, during and after your transition. Calm their fears, stress the benefits, and clarify how this technology will better help you serve your mission.
  • Transition incrementally. You don't have to jump in with both feet. If you want to just dip your toe in, think about trying a cloud tool that can help address a currently ineffective or challenging process. Good candidates for this kind of experiment include project management, collaboration tools and online publishing.

Final Thoughts

The presenters stressed that the cloud is changing constantly, so you can't just evaluate cloud solutions once. An issue that's a deal-breaker for you today may be fixed six months from now. And more cloud tools are coming 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.

Many thanks to NTEN and Google for such a great event!

Image: Laura Dantonio.