Monday, May 3, 2010

Castle in the Cloud or Disaster - Cloud Computing & Your Nonprofit

I don't usually write about tech issues in this blog, but I was in tech for many years (even before there was such a thing as a personal computer - shhhh), so you shouldn't expect to completely escape from tech here. And my ongoing love affair with tech is what brought me to social media in the first place (tech people being inveterate shiny new toy magpies).


A few years back I was working for a small nonprofit in Santa Cruz and they were - like many of their brethren - struggling with technology: their computers were hand-me-down and sometimes so deficient in power that upgrading word processing or accounting software could make someone's desktop go from sluggish to paralyzed. Today, that nonprofit has an E.D. who understands the need to invest in technology. Not only will staff be getting new desktops, but the E.D. is thinking about moving some of the work into the cloud.

Clouds Pretty

I'm pretty much in favor of this, especially when it includes application suites like Google Docs. (Let's face it, even with help from organizations like TechSoup, it isn't easy for a small nonprofit to keep up with productivity software and their updates.) Using the cloud, your work is available to you most anywhere you can get an internet connection. Your organization won't have as many server headaches. Software can/will be very low cost or free and so will upgrades and there aren't any seat licenses or waits while the software vendor checks to make sure your software is legal.

But before your organization starts building a small nonprofit in the clouds, there are some things you need to do to keep a storm from setting your castle on fire.

Man the Battlements
  • Server Downtime You'll have even less control of your online environment than before. That is to say, if their server goes down, you go down, and you will have to wait to find out (if you ever really do), what happened and when it will be back up. You would be wise to keep a copy of anything important on your desktop or laptop so you can keep working on it. You might even consider keeping an extra copy in a place like Dropbox, so that if you still have internet service but no access to where your stuff is stored, you'll have two places you can go for a working copy.
  • Backup As with your own server, there's no guarantee that when you re-enter your cloud castle, everything is still where you left it, as you left it. And this is another argument for backing up your files on a regular basis.
  • Security You'll have to be even more vigilant about security. While companies like Google work to protect their servers from hackers, your job will be to protect your information from them. For example, if you don't use Twitter you may not know that their document files were hacked. This is interesting news because Twitter's staff uses Google Docs and because the hacker didn't have to go to Twitter's server, there was no way for Twitter to deny access to someone not in their corporate office - in fact, the hacker was in France. You'll have to consider long and hard what, if any, information about your donors, volunteers, and board members you want to put into the cloud. Especially since the jury is still out about what's illegal search and seizure with regard to data stored in the cloud. You may even want to consult counsel about potential liability should any of that information be hacked with resulting harm. And you'll need to be extremely careful with passwords - they shouldn't bear any resemblance to what a staff member uses to log into social media networks or sites.
Just a few things to think about while you're contemplating high-flying architecture.
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