May 24, 2012

Into the Cloud: Great Books Foundation

  • 70 staff members
  • $5.5 million annual budget

For more than six decades, the Great Books Foundation has worked to promote discussion and empower readers of all ages to become more reflective and responsible thinkers. The organizations reach is international, as is its staff, two-thirds of which work in Chicago. Some, like the sales force and trainers, work remotely or telecommute.

Were a very conservative organization that has done some much less conservative things in the last five years or so, said vice president Mark Gillingham.

The organizations president came from the banking world, and brought with him a conservative approach to risk. In some ways that extends to technology decisions, but the Foundation has tried to lead its peers in that area. Two IT staff members get support from other people in the organization, including an IT planning committee that weighs in on planning programs and strategy.

Maybe because of social networking, or mobile phones, everyone on staff is more in tune with technology than they were a decade ago, Mark said. Its not as hard a sell anymore.

The president still sits on the board of a bank, which sent him an iPad for board collaboration. Because he was forced to use it, Mark said, he began to see how technology could make his lifeand his jobeasier.

That was helpful in showing him how the world was using technology, Mark said.

Embracing the Cloud is just one part of the Foundations effort to be a technology leader, and it uses Cloud solutions for most of its tools, including telephony, Constituent Relationship Management, Enterprise Resource Planning, email, productivity software, eCommerce systems and web content managementeverything but the file server.

Our file server is in the closet, but everything else is in the Cloud, Mark said. We use Google Apps for email, blogging, productivity and document sharing, he said, and other apps run on instances at Amazon Web Services.

The decision came about as an either-or choice, Mark said: buy new servers, or move to the Cloud. After researching Amazon and Rackspaces Cloud offerings, the choice was clear.

We took the care and feeding that we would normally do, and moved to Amazon, he said. Weve hosted things (in the past), but weve never been fully satisfied. We said, We can do better than this, so why dont we?

Mark said that ultimately, any time the foundation can learn to do something on its own, its better off in the long run. The steep learning curve with the Amazon Cloud products were worth the gains in service and control.

For support, Foundation staff more or less bypass Amazons customer support and instead rely on the consulting firm that helped with implementation and adoption.

The Foundation backs up all data to the local server, and uses the Nagios open source IT monitoring system to keep an eye on server activity and alert staff to any problems. Overall, he said, staff spends less time than it did before moving operations to the Cloudmaybe a couple of hours a week on infrastructure, compared to 20 hours five years, and 40 hours a decade ago. Now theres more time for planning and reports, and to find other ways to help program staff.

We dont have to keep the lights on, and we dont have to make sure the power supply backup has a fresh battery, and the hard drives are working, Mark said. They can break, and they do breakand then you need to tell people things are down. We dont need to tell people things are down as much anymore.

The move to the Cloud didnt happen overnight. We hemmed and hawed a lot, Mark remembered. All told, it took close to a year, and began with less critical systems. The first major foray was the accounting system. There was some lingering fear about moving to the new system, but the IT planning committee discussed all the things that could go wrong and decided there was at least as much risk in the existing system, as the vendor was showing signs of unreliability.

We were compelled to do something, and that something turned out to be the Cloud, Mark said. And as we dipped our toes in the water, we got more comfortable.

The Foundation has had to change its processes a bit to accommodate the Cloud systems, including increasing bandwidth internally and providing reliable internet access to remote staff.

On the flip side, its much easier to provide hardware, because there are no compatibility issues, he said. Production staff had always used Macs for layout, and many editors used Macs at home. Being in the Cloud makes it easier to be a Mac shop, he said.

The only issues hes found with the move to the Cloud are vendor-related. He said Amazon sometimes provides a bit of a moving target. Youre not so much in control of when updates will happen, or when a process will change and youll have to relearn things, he said. Amazon changes the rules and features from time to time, and we have to relearn.

Overall, he said, the solution is not saving the organization moneybut its saving time.

Were saving a lot of time, and using that time to better ends, he said. Lots of organizations have a different mix, different goals, staffing. For our size and for what we do, we think weve made good decisions.

Editor’s note: This case study is part of an NTENresearch series on Nonprofit Infrastructure in the Cloud, which was conducted in May, 2012, and prepared by Idealware. You can read the article and the other case studies in this series later this month.

Chris Bernard