How to: Getting Your Head (and Org) into the Clouds

Submitted by Brett on Thu, 03/18/2010 - 8:15am

Rob Jordan, Idealist Consulting

So you may have already heard all the great things that happen when you move your technical solutions into "The Cloud": Automated back ups; ability to forgo networks; automated upgrades; ability to intermingle hardware; lower maintenance; virtual office space, thicker hair and better dating life (well, most of those anyway.)

Idealist Consulting specializes in moving and supporting organizations that are interested in "getting into the cloud" and with over 180 clients we have a good idea of what it takes to get there. In roughly three months time you can shift your most pertinent business operations from "on-premise" solutions (a.k.a. traditional offline software) into the cloud (a.k.a. online software) without too much hassle.

Below are four steps that we recommend to prospective clients to help guide them through the process.

First, conduct an ad hoc technological assessment.

Select which elements of your business process (i.e. book keeping, telephony, database etc.) are facilitated with on-premise solutions and which of those business processes could be facilitated within the cloud. In our experience, there are five administrative processes that provide the greatest return on time and investment when considering a cloud computing solution: Accounting, Database, Email, Web Site and Telephony.

These five attributes are essential to business operations and they all have reliable and affordable cloud computing solutions that you can leverage. In addition, many of these solutions offer discounts to NPO’s allowing for even greater savings. Some of these recommended solutions include QuickBooks online (accounting), Salesforce.com/Common Ground (database/CMS), Google Apps (email), Dreamhost (website server), Ring Central/Skype (Telephony).

Second, review both objective and subjective research material.

Through the review process you should be trying to answer these three questions.

  • What is the total cost of ownership (T.C.O.) of the solution?
  • What capabilities do these solutions provide?
  • How easy is the solution to adopt/learn?

Start your review process with objective material from sources like NTEN, Idealware, and TechSoup. These organizations provide research material and support articles to help you make informed decisions about technology. You can think of them as consumer reports for non-profit technology. Keep in mind that cloud computing has been around a long time -- it was not until it got a fun name like cloud computing that people started paying attention. That said, there is loads of information and research done on these various solutions -- take advantage of that.

Subjective material is a great supplement to objective material and is free to obtain. You can find subjective material from two common sources. The most familiar source is referral. Referrals are the most honest review of the product you will find. Find out who is using the product and talk to them about it. Direct correspondence, chat rooms (i.e. npsf@googlegroups.com) and blogs (i.e. gokubi.com) are great places to start. Look for opinions from people that have similar organizations, values, missions and tech skills to get the best comparison.

Another subjective source is the actual sales cycle. There is much more to learn than price when you engage an Account Executive (A.E.). Most A.E.’s can provide collateral and promotional material that outlines the value of their solution over on-premise options. Moreover, many of these cloud computing solutions work with "solution partners". Solution partners provide technical consulting specifically geared to ensure a proper deployment…they are usually optional and at an additional expense (more on that later). Much like the Account Executive, these solution partners offer a wealth of knowledge for you to leverage during your decision making process -- take advantage of that.

Third, conduct cost analyses.

There are two key expenses to consider when comparing prices of different cloud computing solutions -- cost of solution and cost of implementation. When considering cost of solution, keep in mind the solution you adopt will often be defined by the budget you have allocated for the project. Also keep in mind that one of the attributes of cloud computing is that you can often get a "lite" version of the solution and then graduate to something more substantial as the organization grows. Moreover, many of these cloud computing solutions offer discounts or are entirely gifted to 501 c3’s (i.e. Salesforce.com, CRM Fusion etc.). This will lower your overall T.C.O. allowing you to reroute your expenses to training or solution partner expenses.

When considering cost of implementation, some cloud computing solutions consume more project resources than others. For example, QuickBooks offline to QuickBooks online is almost seamless, whereas a move from Sage MIP to QuickBooks online would require a multi-step process (i.e. configuration, data migration and training).

For more complex cloud computing solutions you will need to decide if the deployment should be done in-house or by a solution partner. "Free is not always cheap" as they say, and having volunteer implementation of your cloud computing solution may not always be the best bet. However, paying a solution partner to support you with a deployment that could be done in-house may not be ideal either. So how do you know when it is best to deploy a solution in-house and when it is best to engage an outside solution partner?

The clearest way to make this distinction is to note whether the cloud computing solution offers a "partner program". As mentioned above, solution partners provide technical consulting specifically geared to ensure a proper deployment. Common Ground CRM, Acteva RSVP and Salesforce.com all have partner programs focused on helping non-profits with the adoption of their respective products. Utilizing partner services can help ensure a proper deployment and save months of headaches that can arise from a do-it-yourself experience. That said, a partner program does not imply that you will need help to deploy these solutions -- however, it is a good barometer of deciding whether or not you should consider getting partner support.

Fourth, plan for deployment.

It makes the most sense to move to a cloud computing solution after your existing on-premise solution has expired. Once you're ready, you may be looking at anywhere from one day to three months to move into the cloud. This will largely depend on three variables -- project scope, solution and client engagement.

The project scope is the first thing to consider. The cloud computing solution you select and the size of your organization will often define how much staff and time you need to dedicate to the process. For example, a 30 person staff with a 30 year history deploying a new database will take more time and resources than a start up 3 person organization deploying the exact same solution. The length of a deployment will typically be revealed once you answer these questions.

The solution will also be a deciding variable in project deployment. As was mentioned above, QuickBooks has a wonderful system that makes conversion from QuickBooks offline to QuickBooks online a breeze. On the other hand, a conversion from Outlook/onsite servers to Google Apps/online server would probably require more attention and support than the resources you have in-house.

Finally, and arguably most important -- client engagement. The majority of projects that Idealist Consulting deploys roll out on schedule. The projects that don't, however, are usually due to the client’s inability to be fully engaged with the project. Events, meetings and holidays all contribute to the delay of a project and often are the sole factors in not meeting projected launch dates.

Moving into the cloud is very liberating. You can expect lower costs, less maintenance and more stability. Moreover, it is not that difficult. With proper tech assessment, research and cost analyses the deployment is often straightforward. Once you make the choice to move into the cloud, keep these steps in mind and you will find the process is not nearly as daunting as you may have anticipated.

Rob Jordan is a returning business development Peace Corps volunteer and the principal of Idealist Consulting, a technical consulting firm dedicated to advancing the mission of nonprofits through the implementation of affordable technology. Idealist Consulting is an implementation partner for a number of cloud computing solutions, including but not limited to: Salesforce, Common Ground, Acteva, Click Tools, Google Apps and others.