May 12, 2014

Demystifying the Cloud: Making Smart Decisions for Your Organization

At this point you know that the cloud is the future and you should be in on it! Unfortunately, “the cloud” is not a terribly descriptive term (it is, in fact, a marketing term), and that leaves plenty of room for uncertainty and fear. I’d like to take a few minutes to demystify the concept and help you make informed and measured decisions for your organization.

“The Cloud” Doesn’t Mean Much

One of the biggest mistakes nonprofits make when trying to make decisions about the cloud is thinking about “the cloud” as a single, monolithic entity or solution. Rather than this approach, I would recommend that you ignore the term entirely. Software makers have invented the term because it comes with a great logo and a nice set of marketing terms, none of which are helpful outside of the context of a specific tool.

All “the cloud” means is that the tools are hosted in a different physical location than your staff. You access these tools over the internet. In most cases, the tools have been built from the ground up to provide a good user experience over the internet – something older technologies can’t claim. In many cases, all you need to access the tools is a web browser. In light of this more specific definition, I’m going to use the terms “cloud-based” or “hosted” for the rest of this article, because these do a better job of communicating what is actually going on.

As a nonprofit leader, you should be balancing the cost of your technology with the tools your staff needs to work effectively. Using cloud-based tools can help with this because you are sharing infrastructure with hundreds of other organizations. This keeps costs down and gives you access to the same tools as much larger organizations.

Still, what you are looking at are individual tools. These tools are hosted in a data center somewhere in the world rather than on your local computer, but they are still discrete components. Your responsibility is evaluating each individual tool – cloud-based or otherwise – to determine if it is a good fit.

This article is intended to help you navigate some of the specific concerns that need to be addressed when dealing with tools that do not live on your local network.

Evaluating potential tools (and vendors) requires comparing the features and drawbacks of these solutions with your organization’s needs and goals. This remains true for cloud-based or hosted tools, but there are a few particularly important things you need to consider when evaluating. Answering these questions for your organization is the first step in determining which cloud-based tools will work for you.

Workplace Flexibility 

Many of the benefits of hosted solutions revolve around universal access and business continuity (continuing to work if there is an issue with your office). However, these benefits don’t mean much if you provide services from a dedicated physical location and are unable to provide those services from another location under any circumstance. In this case, you may need to stick to tried and true solutions that run off of equipment installed locally.

Resiliency to Internet Outage

One obvious disadvantage to externally hosted or cloud-based tools is a loss of access if your site loses its internet connection. In order to understand how this might impact your organization, it is important to think about your organization’s ability to function without an internet connection right now. If your organization is able to provide all of its core services without a functioning connection, and you cannot live without the tool you are considering, then you should think twice about cloud-based tools

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider it. Instead, think about shifting resources into mitigating the risk of a failed internet connection. Many organizations invest in secondary internet connections. Those that can work from anywhere put in place documented procedures about working from home or designated alternate locations.

Vulnerability of Your Data

The number one question I get asked about cloud-based tools is “are they safe?” To provide a simple answer: yes, your data is safer in the cloud than it is on a server in your network. Cloud vendors keep your data separate from other organizations, they encrypt it, and they invest far more money in security and monitoring than you ever could. But let’s explore this a little further.

One of the risks of cloud-based tools is that they are more appealing targets for malicious attacks. One organization’s data on a single server is easy to get to, but the payoff is small. Thousands of organization’s data in one place might be worth the effort. However, keep in mind that attackers are interested not in your data but in your usernames and passwords (to get access to your email for spam or bank accounts to steal from) and not in your data. Cloud-based tools put in place monitoring and strict password requirements to reduce this risk and quickly lock out accounts that have been compromised.

The only time you should be worried about putting your data in a cloud-based tool is if the data is extensive and highly valuable (credit card information, social security numbers, etc). For sensitive data, you should select a cloud-vendor that has designed their solution specifically to keep this type of data safe.

Also keep in mind that the biggest risk to your data is not from outside attackers but from disgruntled employees or accidental deletion. Being on a cloud-based system doesn’t change this risk, but it might offer you better tools to deal with it.

Government Interest in Your Data

The one situation in which putting your data in the hands of a cloud-based tool should be carefully considered is when you are working with vulnerable populations that are targets of law enforcement. Cloud-based vendors are required by law to hand over your data if subpoenaed, and they are usually under a gag order to prevent them from notifying you. If you have data that might be of interest to law enforcement, and you would consider fighting a subpoena submitted to you directly, then the cloud may not be a good option.

Transitioning to Cloud-Based Tools

If you decide the cloud is a good fit for your organization, you should start planning early and carefully. Cloud-based tools are designed to work over an internet connection, and as a result they often do not function the same way as the tools your users have been using for years. Most of the time you spend implementing a cloud-based tool should be spent on user-focused planning and training, not implementation.

Remember that there is no need to move everything to the cloud at once. Most organizations should start with a tool that has a direct cloud-based alternative (like Office 365 for organizations using on-premise Exchange servers). Break your infrastructure down into pieces and move them one at a time.

Cloud-based tools aren’t a panacea, but they can bring down your IT costs and give you access to tools you only dreamed of a few years ago. Careful planning that considers your organization’s specific needs and complications will help you be successful. Good luck!

Sam Chenkin
Sam is an organizer and technology professional working to make the nonprofit sector a leader in the fight for an equitable society. Sam founded and manages the 10-person nonprofit-only consulting group at Tech Impact. The consulting group helps nonprofits understand how technology can (or cannot) support their missions and build power in their communities. Sam has technical expertise in the areas of data science, digital security, and digital transformation. Sam uses they/them pronouns and lives in a communal home in West Philadelphia, PA, United States of America.
Tags: Cloud