To the cloud: One agency’s IT transformation

(Summarized from a presentation for the 2014 TechNow Conference; original presentation by Krissy DeShetler, Family House and Frank Schlatterer, JenLor Integrations)

In 2013 Family House underwent a major overhaul of their IT infrastructure. In this article I’ll give a basic overview of the before and after, and the process that it took to get there.

About Family House

Family House, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, provides housing for patients and caregivers who travel to Pittsburgh for medical care. At the time of this project Family House was operating 4 houses with a total of 160 guest rooms as well as an administrative office. Family House was serving 15,000 guests each year with an operating budget of $4.4 million and a staff of 60 (20 full-time and 40 part-time).

The challenge

Several elements of our IT infrastructure were beginning to crumble and needed some major attention in order to make them more efficient. We needed our technology to be a useful tool instead of a hindrance to our staff.

The major hurdles included:

  • End of life for two servers: two physical servers that had manufacturer warranties that would expire in May and September 2014.
  • Workstations out of warranty: 23 workstations, 8 of which had expired manufacturer warranties and another 8 would be expiring before September 2014.
  • Inconsistent software: 3 versions of Microsoft Office being used throughout the organization.
  • Time consuming backup system: A tape backup system that required a staff member to change the tape daily and take the tape home with them in case it was needed for disaster recovery, plus the backup did not cover the entire system.
  • Divided WiFi: 20 residential grade WiFi access points that were each independent with no central monitoring.
  • Unmanaged email: A majority of our part-time staff members were using personal email accounts for work related communication.
  • Our idea of “remote access” was to email files to ourselves or carry around flash drives so that we could work from home.
Our old network layout. Select to enlarge.

A brief note about the “situation” Family House found itself in: We did have an outside IT company that managed our system. A technician was onsite twice a month and would handle upgrades, troubleshooting, etc. This IT company did recommend needed upgrades for software and hardware, but they were not persistent enough (in my opinion). The proposals were often the first thing to get cut from upcoming budgets because “Everything is working; why should we spend money on it?” The workarounds, inconsistencies and lost time for staff because of inefficient systems didn’t speak loud enough when it came to the annual budget.

This is a very common position that nonprofits find themselves in. Many nonprofits operate like this until it is too late and then decisions are made in a panic instead of having time to process and make the best decision for the needs of the organization.

Finding a solution

With the list of challenges mentioned above, we set out with a small committee of staff and board members and presented a Request for Proposals (RFP) to three IT companies. Going into the RFP process, most of us expected that we would end up with three proposals that included some combination of onsite servers, Office 365, new workstations, etc. That was the case with two of the proposals, but the third proposal presented an option that we had not really considered: a cloud based, virtual server setup. After a long RFP process of meetings, walkthroughs, and reference checks, we ended up selecting JenLor Integrations and their proposal of a cloud-based infrastructure.

The details

Referring to the challenges listed earlier, here is what the cloud based solution provided:

  • Physical, on-site servers were replaced with rented server space at a data center. This eliminated several thousand dollars in upfront costs for purchasing hardware. Instead, we pay a monthly fee based on the amount of space that we have allocated in the data center. This provides flexibility—as our space needs change, we can add more space without the concern of running out of space in a physical server.
  • Traditional desktop computer workstations were replaced with thin clients. The thin clients are much less expensive and do not require a traditional operating system.
  • Using the resources of TechSoup, we upgraded to Office 2013. This transition was not nearly as stressful on our staff as learning Office 365 would have been.
  • The tape backup system was replaced with a monitored and managed cloud backup.
  • The WiFi system was upgraded to a managed Cisco Meraki system.
  • A portion of the cloud server was setup as a Microsoft Exchange server. By using TechSoup we were able to purchase enough licenses for all of our staff to have a Family House email account.
  • Access to the cloud server is through a remote desktop connection. That makes the user experience the same whether they are sitting in their office or in a coffee shop.
The new network layout. Select to enlarge.

The cost

In comparing the three RFPs, the cloud-based solution from JenLor was a cost savings of over $100,000 in the first year. The majority of the cost savings was related to the need for very little hardware. Our expenses for the initial setup and first year of support and maintenance were approximately $88,000.

In the process of deciding on a solution we were also extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to present our project to a local foundation. The foundation provided a grant that covered the setup and first year of support and maintenance.

Things to consider

If you are looking to make the transition to a cloud-based setup:

  • Internet is crucial. JenLor highly recommended that we invest in a redundant ISP. That was not something that we kept in the budget because we operate multiple locations. If our internet is out at one location, thanks to the ease of the remote connection, we can easily work from an alternate location. However, if your organization only has one location, a redundant ISP should be a big consideration.
  • Streaming video can be slow. When I am sitting in my office in Pittsburgh and open a web browser, I am connecting from Pittsburgh to the data center in Kansas City and then back to Pittsburgh. That is a long “distance” for data to travel and that is often most evident with streaming video.

Five months after we made the transition to the cloud we experienced a flood at our administrative office. A small hot water tank in the second-floor kitchen burst and leaked through to the first floor. The former IT closet was directly below the kitchen. If our server had been onsite it would have been destroyed. With the cloud system the only thing that needed to be replaced was our firewall. We were back up and running by noon on Monday (the flood occurred on Sunday). Also, the flood only affected the administrative office; our other locations were never affected.

It has been over four years since Family House took a leap into the cloud and virtual server setup and I can say without a doubt that we have a more efficient, user-friendly, cost-effective, and reliable IT infrastructure than we did when we started the process.

Krissy DeShetler