Cloud services: are they right for your charity?

August 12, 2013 at 09:54

Cloud services is bringing change to organisations. The charity IT department as we know it, with its heavy reliance on physical in-house servers, and tight control of software choices, will be dead in five years – if it lasts that long. A mixture of devolution of budget control and technological decisions being made by users outside of IT , means that to stay ahead of the curve we need to actively engage in this process. One of the biggest changes we’ve already heard about is cloud services. The opportunity for charities to reduce costs (or at least move from Capex to Opex), free up the time of their IT Managers so they can work on strategic operations, and ability to remove the physical burden of in-house infrastructure, is alluring.

But what about the risks, I hear some of you cry. What about them? Different product, different risks. Evaluate as usual: risk analysis to consider what type of cloud services could help your organisation. Perhaps using a SaaS (software as a service) product like Salesforce or Office 365 could help streamline your operations? Maybe a full server migration to a private cloud or a partial migration to a hybrid cloud could free up resources? Using cloud services is about finding a balance that’s right for your organisation – and your trustees, because you are going to have to sell this to them and that may not be as easy as you think.

Comparing apples and golf balls?

Finding a way to compare cloud services to in-house servers isn’t straightforward. It’s like comparing apples and golf balls. We’ve been working through this process ourselves recently at CFG and thought we’d share our thoughts and learning with other charities. So here are some points to consider when creating a cost benefit analysis or working out the TCO (total cost of ownership):

1.    Do you (or your IT support company) proactively monitor your systems?

If you need to tell your IT support company about a failure then they probably don’t run monitoring software. Cloud vendors monitor their own infrastructure because they have SLAs to deliver on. It is in their interests to deal with problems proactively and efficiently.

What this means to CFG: if our systems are not being monitored then how can they be maintained? This is a big risk to deal with.

2.    In-house servers have an end of life of 3-5 years depending on your depreciation policy

After this amount of time you’ll find that warranty prices increase and the supply of parts becomes harder. Depending on the way a cloud provider upgrades their infrastructure, you could have access to newer technology without the need to physically upgrade and incur costs every few years.

What this means to CFG: less staff time spent chasing Dell for warranty renewal prices or waiting for the replacement hard drive from Scotland to arrive.

3.    Automated backups

Ever struggled with maintaining consistent backups? Most cloud vendors automate the process . The backup will run over weekends and bank holidays so you do not need someone in the office to swap the tapes over.

What this means to CFG: failure will happen. The key is how you recover.

4.    Inherent failover and disaster recovery leading to better reliability of mission critical systems

After personally experiencing the loss of an e-mail server that caused 2.5 working days of downtime, I can say that the thought of spinning up a replacement cloud server in under two hours is very attractive. All of that happening automatically at 3am on a Sunday morning so all I get is two e-mails, one titled: problem and the other, solved, is something I commend Rackspace on when our SQL database decided to eat all of the space on its hard drive early one Sunday morning. It was solved by a night engineer who kept our website up and running, three days before our Annual Conference.

What this means to CFG: our infrastructure must work. Our systems must run. End of.

5.    Carbon savings

Economies of scale, lower electricity usage and prices for those using cloud services are great bonuses. Cloud providers buy in bulk so get a better price. Going one step further, a large cloud vendor, Rackspace, only uses 100% renewable energy sources and is certified to ISO 14001.

What this means to CFG: better for the environment!

6.    Security

Running an up-to-date physical firewall, server hardening, penetration testing, out of hours patch scheduling…  It costs time and money – two halves of an equation that smaller organisations may not have a lot of. Cloud services operate from the more common “position of breach” because we all know, it’s not if you are hacked but when you are hacked. As a point of interest, from the 2013 Trustware Global Security Report, figures from investigations in 2012 showed that intrusion to containment could be as long as 4 years.

What this means to CFG:  We want to do everything we can in our budget to increase security.

7.    Cost

A true comparison needs to include electricity costs, insurance of servers, monitoring software, backup software, tape/disk prices, staff time in doing the backups, disaster recovery testing, the proportion of in-house IT time spent dealing with the servers/support companies, etc. With the cloud you need to factor in a fibre connection with an SLA and possibly a failover ADSL line or at least a people disaster recovery plan in case you lose your connection for an extended period. Whilst this seems farfetched, in 2011, a woman in Georgia, Eurasia, was digging in her back garden with a shovel, hit Armenia’s fibre backbone line and left the whole country without Internet for 12 hours. It can and does happen. However, the beauty of cloud services is that your staff can work from home or a replacement office.

What this means to CFG:  comparing costs of cloud services and in-house infrastructure is like comparing a skateboard and a helicopter because they are both methods of transport.

8.    Cloud services is a metered model

If you have collected 500GBs of files, folders, dancing kitten gifs, e-mails, etc, all dating back to 1994, then you will need to pay to store them in the cloud. It is most definitely worth looking at archiving older material in a different way to the material you will need to access every day. This especially applies to e-mails. Point of fact: get your IT house in order before you move to a metered service. If users are desperate to keep e-mails about room bookings, going back further than they are even legally liable then you will have to be more inventive with the use of what the cloud offers off the shelf.

What this means to CFG:  clean up before you sign up.

9 Peace of mind

Priceless.

What this means to CFG:  well, as much peace of mind as an IT Department can ever have 😉

The cloud services sector is growing exponentially. It’s worth doing a cost benefit analysis once your IT equipment fully depreciates to see if it can help you deliver greater value for your charity because we, as IT Managers, are expected to provide bigger, better and faster and that only comes from utilising technology available to us.