June 8, 2012

Into the Cloud: The Public Interest Network

  • 500+ staff
  • 60 Member Organizations

The Public Interest Network, made up of about 60 environmental organizations, needed a better, more affordable method to support the email accounts of its 500 staff members. Because of its distributed and diverse nature, it had been reassessing much of its technology, trying to lower costs, and move away from 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, Director of the Web Presence Department.

Previously, The Public Interest Network had taken a more decentralized approach to email, using multiple different systems for different organizations in the network. It found this method of handling email was prone to service outages, and more instability than it had expectedor than it wanted. Eventually, the patchwork of email systems proved too difficult to maintain in a cost-effective manner. Having previously implemented Amazon Web Services in addition to a co-located spam device, the Network quickly looked to the Cloud for a solution, ultimately settling on the vendor-hosted email solution Zimbra.

In addition to saving money over previous email systems, Zimbra has also proven to require much less maintenance. When email systems were handled in-house, staff spent anywhere from 10 to 20 hours a month dealing with new email address requests, listservs, aliases and other administration needs. Thats all handled by the vendor now.

When there are outages or slowness, we will send a support ticket, and thats the way we like it, Littlewood said. That ability to outsource maintenance and free up time was the main selling point for the Network.

When there are outages or slowness, we will send a support ticket, and thats the way we like it, Littlewood said. That ability to outsource maintenance and free up time was the main selling point for the Network.

The lynchpin was, Can we buy it from a vendor, can we understand what the costs are, and will it work well? he said. Its been much more successful than having several highly trained tech staffthats not the IT staffs mission. Why try to shoehorn a certain type of person or department into the organization when it could outsource instead, and then choose the IT staff better-suited to meet the more critical needs?

Staff faced a learning curve, which is to be expected when switching from familiar software to something new. As the case seems to be with Cloud solutions, however, the staff members with reservations needed more of an explanation of the rationale for the change than any actual convincing.

We had a healthy degree of paranoia, Littlewood said. The big fear when I laid out my solution was that the (vendor) could go belly up and wed be holding the bag.

Editor’s note: This case study is part of an NTEN research series on Nonprofit Infrastructure in the Cloud, which was conducted in May, 2012, and prepared by Idealware. You canread the overview article for this study, and find the other case studies in this seriesin our case-study section.

Chris Bernard
Interest Categories: Cloud
Tags: case study, Cloud