Cloud & Server: Yes It Can Make Sense to Have Both!

For the past couple of years many pundits, consultants, and others have made statements essentially writing the obituary for servers in any organization’s office. The message communicated to nonprofits and other small organizations is to head for the cloud for all your technology needs; treating the server as a four-letter word.

Though it’s true that migrating to the cloud can provide valuable savings in cost, time, resources, and reduced technology complexity, like any diet fad claiming to help you dramatically lose weight, the cloud should not be treated as a “One-Size-Fits-All” solution. The reasons why most organizations migrate to the cloud might include:

  • Maintaining less infrastructure
  • Reducing IT complexity
  • Reducing risks (security, etc.)
  • Enabling offsite backup and recovery
  • Saving time & costs of maintaining hardware / software
  • Remote access to applications, files, databases, etc.
  • Maintenance and patch updates taken care of by hosting provider
  • Less dependency on dedicated IT personnel and contractors

Yet, deciding on what to do with your on-premise server or whether to invest in a server versus relying 100% on cloud services is not an “either/or” technology decision. The cloud does not guarantee a perfect solution for every organization, no more than maintaining an on-premise server for a specific reason implies that your organization is behind the times or not making effective technology decisions.

In actuality, when determining your cloud computing needs, it is more realistic to view your organization as having specific needs that must be met. Some or all of your computing needs might very well be met via cloud computing, but then again maybe not. It is wiser to view your potential cloud computing needs as fitting somewhere on a cloud computing spectrum that can range from relying 100% on an on-premise server (i.e. private cloud) to 100% public-cloud based, OR what is less talked about (but not uncommon), somewhere in the middle.

Every organization naturally fits somewhere on the cloud computing spectrum. The big question is “Where does your organization fit on this spectrum?” To answer this question organizations ought to perform due diligence in order to determine which cloud-based services they should adopt, if any.

As stated earlier, most of the conversation today targeted at small businesses and nonprofits (i.e. articles, webinars, blogs, etc.) is focused on eliminating the need / reliance of an on-premise server. This being the case, shouldn’t we first remind ourselves “What do we use servers for today?” more specifically, “What are the set of computing responsibilities we’ve become accustomed to rely on via a server?” Organizations ought to have a complete picture of exactly what functionality / services they’re considering to migrate before they can fittingly identify our cloud computing needs.

Some of the more common set of responsibilities an on-premise server tends to handle includes:

To assist nonprofits with determining whether or not they should migrate some or all of their server-related services, it is strongly encouraged that nonprofits assess each of the server responsibilities they rely on today asking the following questions for each service:

  1. Need?: Do we have any unique needs pertaining to this service or are our needs pretty basic?
  2. Costs?: What are our current costs versus those offered via the cloud vendor (initial costs, ongoing costs, any hidden costs)?
  3. Accessibility?: Do we have any accessibility requirements – ex. Employees working in the field or from home?
  4. Control?: What type of control do we need regarding security, accessibility, configuration / customization?
  5. Support?: What type of support is provided; when is it available; and what can we live with? (email only, 1-800, live person, on-site, 24/7, etc..)
  6. Regulatory Compliance Matters?: Do we have any regulatory compliance matters that we must take into account pertaining to security, access, control, transmitting of data, etc.. Ex. HIPPA, SOX, HITECH Act

As mentioned earlier, every organization is unique. There is not one-size-fits-all solution for cloud computing.

By following this cloud migration assessment model, an organization can better determine where and how cloud computing might best meet their organizational needs rather than adopting various cloud technologies based on what they hear and read about. Let’s take application hosting for example: Most nonprofits rely on a applications such as CRM solutions, donor management solutions, accounting packages and so forth.

If we take a look at our organizations unique needs we might ask ourselves such questions as “Is there a compatible cloud-based version of my current software available that has all the same features?”, or “do I have any integration/interfacing requirements between my current applications reducing siloed data?” Also, “do I now have to deal with multiple login IDs and passwords, or can the cloud-based alternative support single sign on (SSO)?”. As for costs, we want to know what the total cost of ownership is for operating an application on my server versus subscribing to a cloud-based alternative. Total cost of ownership includes not just any initial costs, but also on-going monthly/annual fees, training costs, and discounts due to annual lock-ins vs. paying month-to-month.

Also, when looking at any regulatory matters we need to ask ourselves questions such as “do I need to ensure that any data transmissions over the public internet be encrypted?”, “how securely is the data store at the hosting provider’s site?”, “can I request the vendor’s SAS 70 to support my audit needs?”. Upon performing such as assessment you may be surprised to find out that there are some valid reasons why you might need to have an on-premise server. Maybe what would work best for your organization is a small inexpensive server to handle some specific needs rather than expensive high-end server that is overpowered.

Some aspects of this cloud migration assessment model are more relevant to certain organizations rather than others. The point being reinforced is that each organization needs to define what is applicable for their organizational domain and computing needs, and then leverage an analysis framework such as the one prescribed in this article to assist with determining the organization’s unique position on the cloud computing spectrum. So to answer the big question is “Where does your organization fit on this spectrum?”:

By following an assessment model similar to the one we present in this article, not only will you be able to answer this big question, but you will also have stronger understanding of the justification and reasoning behind your decisions regarding each of your computing needs. This will come in handy and provide you with solid background data / support once you begin communicating with vendors, consultants and possibly even senior leadership within your organization regarding any proposals you bring forth for the continued existence of an on-premise server, going totally cloud-based, or identifying a hybrid server/cloud model.

Leon Wilson
Highway T
Leon Wilson serves as the Chief for Digital Innovation & Chief Information Officer for the Cleveland Foundation, focusing on strategic initiatives that will help position the foundation as a leader in the use of technology in all areas of its work. In addition, Leon is responsible for helping to develop and implement an external Cleveland Foundation IT strategy that will focus on elevating Cleveland to become a recognized leader in technology, particularly in the areas of cyber security, big data, and civic tech. Leon brings more than 20 years of senior level technology experience to the foundation and our community.