4 Cloud Technology Models for Nonprofit Executives to Consider

For the past six years Varsity has been selling and using cloud applications. The scope of our cloud applications has been driven by need rather than a shift in strategy. So when I hear that a non-profit organization is thinking of moving everything to the cloud, I’m surprised. Not so much that there is something inherently wrong with a move to the cloud, but that it is done so suddenly. It just wouldn’t have occurred to me (3 years ago), to stop what we were doing and do it completely differently; for us it was more of an evolutionary process, which has given us comprehensive insight into the importance understanding where the need exists.

Six years ago, we were drawn into our first Software as a Service (SaaS) application when we began reselling a cloud-based anti-spam/anti-virus solution to our clients. We didn’t like the idea of the appliance solution that many of our clients were using at the time. The SaaS solution allowed us much better control, protection against local outages, and removed the need for our company to have to update and manage another box. So began our entry into the market.

Now, we offer private clouds for our clients, host virtual desktops, and manage infrastructure on a pay as you go model (which falls under the Infrastructure as a Service cloud model). What drove us here was the need to make our own organization more adaptable and nimble. With staff in three cities (San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle) and growing, there was a need to provide staff-wide equal access to the same business applications. We built our private cloud and everything became much easier. Our data center is located out of the area, with 12 diesel generators and 50% of its power that comes from renewable energy sources (we are purchasing carbon credits to help cover the rest as part of our EPA Green Power partnership). When we moved to our new office we didn’t have to plan for a server room. We didn’t have to worry about cooling or power. We did have to pay extra to install reliable Internet access. As a manager, there were fewer variables to worry about in terms of technology infrastructure, which allowed me to spend my time on other important matters.

As a non-profit executive, you may be considering a move to the cloud, you may have already made the jump to the cloud, or are somewhere in between.  Wherever you are in your decision-making process, your cloud technology strategy will ultimately be driven by your vision for the organization. And that vision can drive several new models.

1. Public cloud services are the most common option we see. Google, Salesforce, Microsoft, Box.net, Dropbox, and Amazon, all provide public cloud options. These represent the most popular cloud offerings. Rest assured, if you’re using Salesforce’s non-profit starter pack, gmail, or Microsoft’s Office 365, your organization is starting to leverage the cloud.

2. Private cloud services are less common in non-profits but should be considered a viable option for organizations. Private clouds have the same characteristics as public clouds (ability to scale quickly, high availability, architecture for growth), but you are not hosted on the same application (referred to as multi-tenancy) as other organizations. In the case of Salesforce, you are on public cloud infrastructure. Although your staff has exclusive access to your data, everyone is running on the same massive business application and the same massive, complex, database. A private cloud infrastructure isolates applications and data exclusive to your organization. In the case of our private cloud offering, we provide distinct and secure access to applications without the client having to purchase or manage the underlying infrastructure. Most organizations that have invested in applications and infrastructure might consider the private cloud option. The migration to a private cloud requires some rethinking about how people get access, but you wouldn’t be forcing people to change the way they work. Business applications and processes generally stay the same.

3. Hybrid clouds are the most interesting to us as we believe that many larger non-profit organizations are using hybrid clouds. Hybrid brings the benefits of private cloud services for some business critical applications while merging with the need of public cloud applications for more “general-purpose” offerings. Why do some organizations go this route? Because they’ve already made an investment in IT infrastructure and applications, thus making it difficult to move directly to the private cloud, or something to match their needs specifically. But other applications, like Office 365 for example, could easily replace the purchase of the traditional version of Office. One of the challenges of this model (as with public cloud services) is the need for Single Sign-on solutions – one place to change all access and permissions for employees. If someone tells you this isn’t a problem, just think of the many times you’ve needed to manage employee access to certain applications and the frustration felt by you and your employee from not being able to do so quickly and easily.

4. Community Cloud is the least common solution. In this last model, similar organizations pool resources to develop a private cloud service that benefits all parties. The complexity of this solution is the reason why one would find it difficult to manage. For a community cloud strategy to work, all parties at the board and executive level would need to agree on a strategic partnership with clear guidelines on responsibility, access, costs, etc. Technology is not the hurdle. Like any partnership, the complexity is in the business model. And most organizations who want to move to the cloud can do so without the need to partner. These solutions are just more affordable now than they’ve ever been whether you are considering a capital investment or moving to an operating expense-driven model.

Now that we’ve laid out some models to consider, you’re probably wondering where to go next. I’d suggest you take a look around and determine if you’ve got the right people at the table. When discussing cloud strategy at the executive level it all begins with business strategy. Be cautious of anyone who walks in the room and immediately offers up technology solutions or applications – the technology itself should not be what drives the strategy, it is the organization’s business need. Only if someone knows and understands your business and your roadmap, will it be appropriate. And if that describes the person leading your discussions, then you are in a great place. Often I find this isn’t the case.

You may also want to consider how to approach the discussion. I personally am not a big fan of lengthy reports. In my early years of running Varsity, I thought that to write a big assessment would demonstrate that my analysis and findings were credible. Now, I prefer to have people in the room that can assess the situation quickly and accurately and have the experience to identify the metrics that need to be measured. That I believe is done best by internal staff. If your staff is good at what they do, then you’ve got the expertise. You may find you just need a coach or guide to help them along in the process of defining your business and cloud strategy.

If your organization is considering a move to the cloud you may want to consider one of these models—there may be one that is just right for you. And if you don’t want to miss our blog series on technology planning coming up later this year, be sure to subscribe to our blog or follow us on Twitter for updates!