Cloud Computing 101: What You Need to Know

Submitted by Brett on Thu, 06/18/2009 - 8:21am

Rem Hoffmann, Exponent Partners, and Rob Jordan, Idealist Consulting

Everyone has come across the term "cloud computing", but what exactly does it mean? What relevance does it have to a nonprofit organization like yours? The short answer: Cloud computing levels the technology playing field for nonprofits. It no longer matters whether you have a sizeable budget or a shoestring budget: With cloud computing, sophisticated technology solutions are more accessible because all you need is access to the Internet.

Cloud Computing: The Next Big Thing

In the 1960s, mainframe computers were all the rage. There was the shift to client servers in the 1980s. Everybody thought it was amazing that you could have everything -- hardware, software, and data -- on a server under your desk. Now, with cloud computing, all of these pieces live online and are readily available to you from any web-enabled device (giving you more legroom under your desk).

What's in the Cloud

Cloud computing is a style of computing in which dynamically scalable and often virtualized resources are provided as a service over the Internet. Let's break it down into three major components:

  • Applications: The tools that you use to run your nonprofit (e.g., Skype, Convio Common Ground, Google Apps,

  • Platform: The tools vendors use to build applications for nonprofits (e.g., Amazon Web Services,, Facebook).

  • Services: Pieces of common functionality that you can mashup with your applications (e.g., Amazon S3, Google Checkout, Google Maps, PayPal).

So, what can you do in the cloud? Anything and everything -- from email, websites, databases, and project management to snail mail, online storage of documents, voicemail, and more.

What makes the cloud different?

  • No infrastructure. If you have access to the Internet, you have access to the cloud.

  • It's open. Internet standards and web services allow you to connect services to each other.

  • Quick start: Try before you buy, and get up and running in very little time.

Why You Should Care

Cloud computing benefits nonprofit organizations of any size; small, medium or large organizations all have access to the same technology in the cloud. As seen through the eyes of a nonprofit, there are many advantages to cloud computing:

  • Flexibility: Scale up and down to meet your organization's requirements. In today's economy, this flexibility is key. You can adjust your IT expenditures to meet your organization's immediate needs. You no longer have to build for the future, or be constrained by decisions made or contracts signed in the past.

  • Choice: For a long time, nonprofits have been offered suites of applications. With cloud computing, you can pick the functionality that you want, and integrate it with other applications as needed. If you change your mind, or your needs change, you can simply switch to another solution.

  • Capacity: In the past, you had to spend a lot of your IT budget on human resources to manage your software. With cloud computing, that's no longer an issue. Now, you can focus on how the solution will help you further your mission. The IT piece belongs to somebody else.

  • Security: In the cloud, there is a higher investment in state-of-the-art security. Companies such as and spend millions on infrastructure to secure your data. The $50 lock on the door that stands between a thief and your data can't compete with the security investments made by these companies. Rest assured that your data in the cloud is much more secure than what lives on a tower under your desk.

  • Upgrades: In the client server world, an upgrade can be a major undertaking, one which is often delayed because of its complexity. Upgrades in cloud computing happen behind the scenes. New features appear the next time you log in to your account; you're always using the most recent version of the software.

  • Ongoing investment: With cloud computing, ongoing investments come from a broader set of users who are all contributing to the company's R&D budget. With money from subscription fees reinvested into the cloud, improvements are made constantly, and your nonprofit stands to benefit from these advancements.

Costs of Cloud Computing

With cloud computing, many of the hidden costs typically associated with software implementation, customization, hardware, maintenance, and training are rolled into a transparent subscription fee. As a result, your overall cost for adopting a system is reduced. Other advantages include:

  • No data backups are required.

  • Access anywhere in the world.

  • Ability to intermingle hardware (Mac and PC) and software (Windows, Linux)

  • No network necessary.

  • Improved visibility into your IT costs.

Getting Into the Cloud

Before you leap into the cloud, you're going to have to do some leg work. The good news is that the steps are similar to those you would take to implement any technology solution.

  1. Develop a strategic plan. What you are going to spend your IT budget on? A CRM solution? A database? A phone system? Figure out what exactly you need to do in the cloud.

  2. Understand your internal business processes. For example, if you have determined that you need a CRM solution, you need to understand how you are going to facilitate your business processes through the system. Try to envision how everything will work together.

  3. Assess your capacity, budget and must haves. You may want x, y, and z, but can you realistically afford them and leverage them effectively? What are your "must-haves" in a solution?

  4. Review your options. You can easily register for a trial with most of these applications to see if it is a good fit. The main commitment you'll need to make is time -- you need to invest enough time to understand how well the solution meets your needs and impacts your business processes. So, dig in, get your hands dirty, and see if there's a good fit for your organization. Do some reading, too. What are NTEN, TechSoup, and Idealware saying about the solutions? Make an informed decision.

  5. Engage with a partner as necessary. As with many technology solutions, applications available in the cloud can be implemented by your organization or by a partner. To determine which option is best for you, consider the cost of your time, the importance of accountability, and the value of ensuring everything is done right the first time. If you don't have time for trial and error, consider working with an experienced partner who can streamline the process and get you up and running painlessly.

You Won't be the First to Enter the Cloud

There are thousands of nonprofits -- including Ashoka, National Coalition of the Aging, United Nations World Food Programme, and Points of Light -- already using cloud computing to run every type of software application imaginable. With many companies offering discounted pricing to nonprofits, cloud computing is an affordable solution that can allow you to focus on your mission, and leave the IT headaches behind. It's time to get your head in the cloud.

For case studies of organizations that are using cloud computing successfully to help further their mission, please visit and