Within the last year, my former organization, MCS had eliminated all of its technology infrastructure by moving our applications to “the cloud”. For those of you not familiar with cloud computing, its essentially hosted software applications and associated data on the Internet in a models. Such models are also known as “software as a service” or as IBM coined “on demand computing”. MCS’s move is indicative of major changes underway in the technology world and could be a model for nonprofits.
In the old model, you would buy a computer and then buy software to put on your computer. You had word processing software, accounting software, database software, etc. all running from your machine. When network technology was implemented, you could buy a server and again buy server software that could store your data and run applications and connect everyone on your network with applications like email and group calendaring. By hosting on a server there was one point for data backup and connection to the Internet. Every couple of years, hardware and software would improve so you would have to buy new computers, new software, new servers and new software to run the servers. You also would probably need to pay a great deal to either build the in house capacity or contract tech. support for your organization. This was the model of technology infrastructure for the better part of the last 3 decades. Over the course of that time, there was a good deal of concern about the organizational digital divide as nonprofits lacked access to capital markets to make the necessary investments in information technology to take advantage of the new technologies. Many nonprofits struggled to keep pace with the changing technology. Nonprofit decision makers often were not equipped with the knowledge to understand in which technologies to invest, let alone figuring out a way to pay for the technology. The new model gets nonprofit organizations out of the upgrade cycle and into focusing on their core competencies of service delivery, running programs, etc. Instead of being forced into an upgrade cycle, worrying about data security and backups, your software and data are hosted by a company who has invested the necessary resources to ensure the product is of high quality and that your data is protected. For many nonprofits the benefits of moving to the cloud are clear:
- Most nonprofits will never have technology as their core competency, nor should they. If your organization is good at providing a particular service than providing great service should be your focus. By offloading your IT infrastructure, you can stop worrying about upgrades
- Many of the applications are low or no cost for nonprofits. Nonprofits will see significant cost savings in not having to upgrade hardware and software and because much less tech. support is required.
- These applications are great! Some of the best developers in the world work at places like Google and Salesforce.com. These developers have spent years building solid, feature rich systems. The days of needing to hire a developer to build a database from scratch are numbered. Developer time is spent customizing and integrating already great applications.
- Many software as a service providers have opened up their platforms to other developers. If the core application doesn’t have everything you are looking for there’s a good chance that someone has developed a low cost solution to suit your needs.
In a future post, I’ll talk specifically about the applications we’ve used in the cloud and how much money we’ve saved. In the meantime, I’d be interested in hearing your experiences with keeping up with technology and your experiences in moving to the cloud.