May 22, 2014

Moving to the Cloud: A Practical Guide

There have been an overwhelming number of blogs, white papers, and webinars done on the topic of the cloud. I’ve contributed to many of them: “What is the cloud?” “Head in the cloud,” and many other pithy titles for what is a really fantastic, and sometimes daunting, topic. Fundamentally, “cloud computing” has completely transformed the technology landscape and enabled nonprofits to have access to robust and powerful IT systems that previously may have been out of reach.

The two most popular cloud platforms are provided by Google, with their Google Apps package, and Microsoft, with Office 365. While Google was the early entrant into this space, Microsoft has really developed a mature product offering, and I think that the competition between the two companies has helped to rapidly improve a product that was just on the horizon only a few years ago. Because of these two organizations’ sizes and commitments to innovation, they both make significant investments into the nonprofit community. Google Apps has been free for nonprofits from the beginning, and Microsoft has recently made the entry level E1 Office 365 program free for nonprofits and their more comprehensive E3 subscription, which most notably includes five licenses of Office Pro Plus per account, is only $4.50/mo.

Making an IT migration is never as simple as it sounds, and a little bit of planning and coordination will go a long way to ensure a successful project. The first step is to understand your organization’s requirements around its IT systems. Ask those questions about how long you could be down. How long do you need to keep data? How long do you need in order to be able to recover data, and how should your data be accessed? Along with the high level questions, this is a good time to also look at your organization’s IT assets: is your internet connection fast & reliable enough? Are your computers up to date? How well organized is your file system? How do you share information?

With the cloud, you are taking advantage of a huge set of “shared” resources and, as a result, are getting a service that has certain attributes instead of a custom piece of hardware and software that could be tweaked to your organization’s exact requirements. One of the biggest benefits to cloud-based services is that they automatically give your organization the technological component of a business continuity plan. The 99.9% uptime means that, even if the power is out in your building, staff can continue to work remotely. The biggest downsides are usually related to backups, data retention, and/or compliance/discovery. Both Microsoft and Google offer a 30 day deleted item retention period meaning that, if you delete something, it can be recovered within a 30 day period. If a document or email is deleted after 30 days, it’s gone. If that doesn’t meet your organization’s requirement, the good news is that there are a number of 3rd party solutions that can be added to provide a level of backup and data retention that would meet your requirements.

Now that we’ve talked about requirements, we can look at some of the different solutions offered and develop an approach around migrating. I’ve outlined some “new” services that are available in each platform, the “same” services that likely replicate the email server in your office and the “different” file sharing and collaboration services that require a change in how people access and share information.

  1. New – Video/Voice/Chat and Presence: Microsoft and Google both provide a service that allows for “enterprise-wide” chat, internal voice, video calls, and desktop sharing. This, in my opinion, is one of the most powerful features in these platforms. As organizations become more distributed, the ability to connect people together with interactive technologies that promote collaboration and teamwork is a vital component of successfully executing your mission. These applications can be installed on desktops, laptops, tablets, and phones without much prep work.
  2. Same – Email: While chat and video are the future, email is our current reality. With Google, everything is in the browser or should be. With Microsoft, the browser experience of Apps is improving by the day; however, for most people, their Outlook application is their lifeblood. Email is one of the easiest services to migrate to the cloud because the back-end server is abstracted from the client software. Both vendors provide built-in tools for migrating email, contacts, and calendar information into their systems. In our experience, these tools are good for organizations composed of fewer than 15 people. Larger organizations can really benefit from third party tools that provide additional automation, reporting, and better error handling. We’ll talk in more detail about these tools during our upcoming webinar.
  3. Different – File and Collaboration: File sharing in the cloud is the final frontier. Individual-centric solutions like Dropbox and Drive have been around for awhile and are well-suited for one person or a small group to collaborate around. We’ve found that managing these type of solutions in a bigger organization can present a lot of challenges, particularly around data access or transitioning owners. While there are native and third party tools to move your files into Google’s Drive or a SharePoint document library, migrating to the cloud is a great opportunity to critically evaluate your document utilization and use it as an opportunity to reassess if you still need to forklift your 15 year old file structure into the cloud. After an evaluation, the need for a dedicated file system may be diminished as activities and process move to CRM systems, project management systems, or other work centric applications.

Making the migration to a cloud service is usually less resource-intensive than upgrading a system in your office; however, it is important to learn about the differences in working with a server down the hall versus one “in the clouds.” Understanding how your organization works and wants to work will be a key factor in how successful your organization will be in taking advantage of the new features and capabilities that the cloud can provide.

Matthew Eshleman
As the Chief Technology Officer at Community IT, Matthew Eshleman is responsible for shaping Community IT’s strategy in assessing and recommending technology solutions to clients. With a deep background in network infrastructure technology he fundamentally understands how technology works and interoperates both in the office and in the cloud. Matt joined Community IT as an intern in the summer of 2000 and after finishing his dual degrees in Computer Science and Computer Information Systems at Eastern Mennonite University he rejoined Community IT as a network administrator in January of 2001. Matt has steadily progressed up at Community IT and while working full time received his MBA from the Carey School of Business at Johns Hopkins University. Matt is a frequent speaker at NTEN events and has presented at the Inside NGO conference and Non-Profit Risk Management Summit. He lives in Baltimore MD with his wife, daughter and son. Matt is an active member of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and the support committee of the Baltimore Mennonite Voluntary Service unit.
Tags: Cloud, Office 365