Out of the Closet, Into the Cloud: Case Studies of Hosted IT Infrastructure (An Overview of a Research Project)

Report published June 8, 2012 in IT Staffing, Software

[Editor's note: The following is an article written by Laura Quinn, Idealware, based on research conducted for NTEN regarding the impact, characteristics, and considerations of cloud options for nonprofit organizations' IT infrastructures. You can read the individual case studies in addition to this article, which summarizes our findings from the case studies. We thank the team at Idealware for helping us conduct this research, and Google for supporting the project.]

There’s a lot of buzz about the Cloud being the future of data storage and processing, and more and more Cloud-based options available to users every day, but we wondered to what extent organizations were effectively replacing traditional IT functions and servers with Cloud solutions. Is nonprofit technology moving out of the data closet and into the Cloud?

We set out to find good examples of organizations that had taken staff email, file servers, phone services and other functions that would traditionally be housed onsite and replaced them with applications accessed over the Internet, or with “Cloud applications” like Google Apps, online file sharing or data backup services. To that end, we posted an email to nonprofit technology discussion lists looking for nonprofits willing to share their stories, and contacted a few participants from an NTEN summit on Cloud technologies earlier this year.

From all our responses, we chose 10 diverse organizations for case studies. Our interviews with these nonprofits revealed a number of great examples from local and international organizations of all sizes and from across a wide range of technology expertise. Some had replaced nearly every part of their organization’s infrastructure with Cloud applications—Evan Alter, the Cloud Systems Administrator for Health Leads, had a hard time thinking of systems that had not been moved to the Cloud—while others were carefully dipping a toe to see whether the approach would work to solve a specific need.

We also learned that, for the most part, these organizations were all satisfied with their decisions, although many are still looking to fine tune their systems or find the right vendors. Let’s look a little more closely at what our case studies show.

What Types of Cloud Services are Nonprofits Using?

Among the organizations that volunteered their stories, the most common example of IT infrastructure in the Cloud by far was outsourcing the servers needed to provide staff email and calendaring. More than half were using products like Google Apps or Microsoft Office 365—the Microsoft Office suite of desktop applications and hosted versions of Microsoft's server products, delivered and accessed over the Internet—to provide staff with email and shared calendars. Not only were these organizations able to eliminate the need for in-house servers, they no longer needed in-house expertise to maintain those servers and systems, which freed up IT staff for other mission-related purposes.

Organizations of all sizes reported more positives than negatives with this model. Scott Mills, Former Chief Information Officer of the 3,600-staff-member Academy for Educational Development (AED), found that moving to Cloud-based email saved substantial money and time, and allowed staff to focus more on mission-related work. On the opposite end of the size spectrum, Kai Williams, executive director of the two-staff-person International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, found Google for Nonprofits met her organization’s needs. “We’re very, very happy with that,” she said. “It was quite easy to set up, and it was free.”

File sharing and data backup—and sometimes both—were other commonly outsourced functions, particularly among organizations with staff in multiple office locations. Surya Ganguly, Director of Consulting at the NonProfit Organizations Knowledge Initiative, or NPOKI, an organization whose 14 staff members travel extensively around the world, said they’d tried a number of solutions to allow staff to share files via a web interface, including Groove Networks, Google Apps and Dropbox. “We wouldn’t be sitting in one office, so there was no question of a traditional network,” he said.

Cloud solutions in this area, or specialized backup services, have the additional benefit of increased security—all files are stored offsite in case a disaster strikes your organization’s office. “It’s all backed up, and we know that we can get to it from anywhere, though it might take longer from some places,” Surya said.

Several of the organizations we spoke with had outsourced their phone infrastructure. Upwardly Global, a 30-staff-member organization that helps highly skilled immigrants find jobs in the U.S., contracts with a vendor to host its PBX (the service that helps manage the interface between phone lines, voicemail and the actual phones). Though the PBX is offsite, Upwardly Global can perform its own administrative tasks over the web. Staff use Voice Over IP handsets, almost indistinguishable from regular desk phones, and can also use a web interface to manage their own settings and access features.

Two organizations were also using virtualized servers, literally replacing servers for databases or applications that used to be in their office data closets with servers hosted elsewhere. These virtual servers are still under their control, but accessed over the web. Mark Gillingham, Vice President of the Great Books Foundation, said his organization has replaced many of its servers—including the constituent database, web content management and learning management systems—with virtual servers hosted through Amazon Web Services. For the Foundation, whose 70 staff members are geographically distributed and often work remotely or telecommute, it’s an excellent solution. Similarly, the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council has moved its custom FileMaker database to a server hosted by Rackspace, which allows both staff members to use it from anywhere.

Other examples of Cloud solutions shared by the organizations we spoke with included time-tracking and payroll, conferencing, helpdesk ticketing and other systems—and many organizations were using more than one.

What Types of Nonprofits are Succeeding with the Cloud?

Generally, everyone we spoke to was happy with their move to the Cloud. That satisfaction was not limited to organizations with strong technology infrastructures, or a cutting-edge approach to technology—in fact, half characterized themselves as “conservative” when it comes to technology. One person said their organization was “not out on the cutting edge” in terms of technology, but consciously trying to use “well-proven, rock solid solutions.”

Aaron Winters, manager of strategic relations for Upwardly Global, said his organization has “an appreciation for copying what other people find to be working. Is there a cheap way to leverage something that already exists?”

“Our IT planning committee discussed all the things that could go wrong, but we decided that things could go wrong a lot worse if we didn’t do something,” said Mark Gillingham, from the Great Books Foundation. “We were compelled to do something, and that something turned out to be the Cloud.”

Many chose Cloud solutions to fill specific needs, such as aging servers or existing solutions that failed to meet particular demands. In each of these cases, the Cloud solutions offered a cost- and time-effective answer to their problems. “Our IT planning committee discussed all the things that could go wrong, but we decided that things could go wrong a lot worse if we didn’t do something,” said Mark Gillingham, from the Great Books Foundation. “We were compelled to do something, and that something turned out to be the Cloud.”

As services like Gmail, Facebook and Flickr help make hosted applications more ubiquitous in our personal lives, people are becoming increasingly open to adopting similar solutions at their organizations. Many of those we spoke to found that it’s become easier to sell the concept of Cloud applications to executives, staff and board members. Scott Mills said many staff at AED were already using Gmail for personal email before the organization assessed and, ultimately, adopted it—including as a workaround for the limitations of the organization’s existing email system. “If you can’t beat them, join them,” he said.

Outsourcing Server Maintenance and Issues

More organizations mentioned one particular benefit of moving IT services from the closet to the Cloud than any other—outsourcing maintenance and responsibility to the vendor means handing the reins to someone with the resources to do it well.

“Microsoft has a much larger IT staff than I have,” said Cara Hart, IT Manager for the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Denver. “The infrastructure and the worry is out of my hands.” Similarly, Evan Alter said, “If something goes down, there is a vendor maintaining the technology 24/7.”

Mark Gillingham elaborated on some of the specific tasks Cloud vendors take on. “We don’t have to keep the lights on, and we don’t have to make sure the power supply backup has a fresh battery, and the hard drives are working,” he said. “They can break, and they do break—and then you need to tell people things are down. We don’t need to tell people things are down as much anymore.”

The vendors are also responsible for addressing any issues the organizations might face, including outages, inaccessibility or slow access, or dwindling disk space. “We will send a support ticket, and that’s the way we like it,” said Jesse Littlewood, Director of the Web Presence Department for the Public Interest Network.

On the other hand, that also puts the organization at the mercy of the vendor’s support process. If something does go wrong, IT managers can be frustrated by their inability to do anything but “try to convince support to do what you know should be done,” Cara Hart said. And things do go wrong. Several organizations mentioned minor outages and downtime, but all felt the downtime was likely to be less overall than if they were maintaining the applications in-house.

“We’ve had a couple of major outages in the last year and half—not long, a few hours,” Cara said. “Certainly it’s better than when we ran it ourselves.”

Organizations are also reliant upon vendors for the overall quality of the service, which can be more worrisome. Two organizations mentioned concerns with bugs and other issues. Marlina McKay, of Atlanta’s Park Pride, said her organization had a scare where it looked like a number of emails had been lost. “But they came back,” she said. “Sometimes there’s just issues.”

Aaron Winters said one of the vendors Upwardly Global works with “feels like a one-person shop, with maybe some contractors, so we’re concerned about his redundancy and downtime.” And Great Books Foundation’s Mark Gillingham pointed out that organizations also have to surrender control over the timeline for new functionality and features.

“You’re not so much in control of when updates will happen, or when a process will change and you’ll have to relearn things,” Great Books Foundation’s Mark Gillingham said.

“You’re not so much in control of when updates will happen, or when a process will change and you’ll have to relearn things,” he said. “[The vendor] changes the rules and features from time to time, and we have to relearn.”

The quality of the internet connection staff uses to access Cloud solutions can make or break a solution’s effectiveness, as well. Several people stressed the importance of ensuring that all staff will have fast and reliable internet access, which may require increasing bandwidth or changing internet providers. This is particularly true for staff working in remote areas. Surya Ganguly said NPOKI staff in some areas of the world have sub-par internet connections, which negatively affects their experience when accessing files. Google Docs “is certainly not bulletproof, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa,” he said. “The bandwidth requirements there are not what Google considers the minimum requirements.”

At times, outsourcing core functions comes with inherent risks. If a vendor goes out of business or stops supporting a service, customers can be left holding the bag. This happened to NPOKI, which had invested in a hybrid product called Groove. Microsoft subsequently purchased Groove and changed the support availability and infrastructure requirements, forcing NPOKI to make impractical investments just to stay with the product. The organization chose to move to Google Docs, a fully Cloud-based solution supplied by a well-established vendor.

Ultimately, outsourcing the support of your servers and infrastructure to Cloud services can save time and cost, and shift complex maintenance issues to professionals who are likely to know more about the issues. However, this requires a level of trust in the vendor, which means some upfront diligence to investigate their reliability.

As Scott Mills put it, “Your Cloud application is only as good as the Cloud it’s on.”

Saving Time and Money

Cost savings do not seem to be among the most significant benefits of Cloud solutions. In general, only a few organizations felt that Cloud applications represented a cost savings over the more traditional on-premise applications they replaced.

Among those that did indicate cost savings from Cloud solutions, a few saw substantial savings—most notably, Scott Mills said AED’s migration to Google Apps resulted in a savings of several hundred thousand dollars a year, and paid for itself within six months. (Subsequently acquired by another organization, AED was a 3,600 staff organization with a budget of about $433 million.) Jesse Littlewood said the Public Interest Network had previously used a co-located spam device, which was dramatically more expensive than a Cloud solution—moving to the Cloud saved his organization substantially, and immediately. He also mentioned the savings on specialized IT expertise.

“We’re moving away from having highly specialized IT staff toward using more vendors as a way to save money and provide even better services to our members,” said Jesse Littlewood, Public Interest Network.

“We’re moving away from having highly specialized IT staff toward using more vendors as a way to save money and provide even better services to our members,” he said.

Indirect savings seemed more common, and the majority of organizations said that, while moving to the Cloud had not necessarily saved them money, it allowed them to move staff time to more strategic technology work. “We’re not saving any money—we’re saving a lot of time, and using that time to better ends,” Mark Gillingham said. “There’s less downtime for everyone.”

Surya Ganguly shared a similar sentiment, and said that he used to set aside time each week to support the old system. When the Cloud solution made that time unnecessary, he found a better use for it. “I just did client work instead,” he said.

Many organizations said the Cloud applications they were using required considerably less administration and support than the more traditional on-premise applications they had replaced. Several of the people we spoke with from smaller organizations reported spending less than half-an-hour per month to administrate common systems like email and file-sharing. “It’s just a miniscule amount of admin, which is just great,” Kai Williams said.

Several pointed out, however, that any change requires new skills and processes—it’s important to not overlook the time required to effectively train staff. For instance, Scott Mills said that AED more or less shifted the balance of IT time from server setup and configuration to staff training.

One person we spoke with made the comment that, in at least one regard, Cloud-based solutions posed an additional funding challenge for his organization. Graham Reid, IT Manager for the Edmonton-based Catholic Charities Society, said that “from a funding perspective, it’s easier to talk to a funder and say I need $2,000 for a server than to say I need $2,000 a year for ongoing Cloud-based services.”

Security in the Cloud

Security is often cited as a core concern by organizations considering the Cloud at a high level, but none of the organizations we spoke to had ever experienced any security issues related to their Cloud solutions.

“You have to choose the right service and make sure you’ve covered your bases,” Evan Alter said. Several people we spoke with noted that security issues are not limited to Cloud vendors. “Someone can also break into your office and steal your file cabinet,” one said. “Nothing’s 100 percent.”

Kai Williams said she hasn’t had any security problems with her organization’s Cloud solutions, but she does what she can to prevent them. “I’ve been taking many precautions,” she said. “Standard good practices for being on line, backing things up, antivirus software, being careful about what we’re downloading and how we’re using the web.”

Scott Mills said AED’s email data in the Cloud was more secure than the data with its payroll provider, and several organizations said they felt their data was more secure with a vendor than they could practically match in-house.

“I’m sure that Microsoft has people who have studied more about security than I have,” Cara Hart said.

Letting Nonprofits Focus on their Strengths

Perhaps the most notable thing our conversations about Cloud solutions revealed was that not a single organization regretted adopting them. Several said they were still experimenting with their approach, or still looking for the right vendors, but all felt that putting some of their infrastructure in the Cloud had been a productive step.

Outsourcing server functions to the Cloud seems to make particular sense for small organizations. Buying a mail server isn’t practical for a small staff, especially if none of them is devoted to IT. On the other hand, larger organizations need to weigh the costs more carefully—per-user fees can add up quickly—and balance that against possible savings of staff time.

“Think about if this can free you from trying to shoehorn a certain type of person or department into your organization when you could just outsource instead,” Jesse Littlewood said.

Cloud services can also add the ability to expand or shrink services quickly, which can be a boon for organizations unsure about what the future will hold. “It’s easier to scale up the service contract on a Cloud service than to buy another server, or spin up another virtual machine, Evan Alter said. “You can just say, ‘we need X more licenses’ or ‘we need to move to the professional version’ instead of having to research, buy, and configure a different infrastructure.”

Scott Mills found that a Cloud approach really made sense, as it “took the focus off of infrastructure and put it onto actually doing things with technology.”

If you’re debating moving to a Cloud solution, in your final analysis, make sure you consider whether it will allow you to focus more on the things you do best. For many of the organizations we spoke to, this was the deciding factor.

“We spend more time understanding what the business wants, working to integrate systems into the organization, and concentrating on helping people doing their job,” Evan Alter said, “and less time getting calls at 3 a.m. when something goes down.”

Laura S. Quinn, Founder and Executive Director, Idealware, has been working in the software sector for more than 15 years. As Idealware’s Executive Director, she directs Idealware’s research and writing to provide candid reports and articles about nonprofit software. Prior to Idealware, Laura founded Alder Consulting, where she helped nonprofits create Internet strategies, select appropriate software, and then build sophisticated websites on a limited budget. She has also selected software, designed interfaces and conducted user research for multi-million dollar software and website implementations with such companies as Accenture and iXL. Laura is a frequent speaker and writer on nonprofit technology topics.