About the cloud. Advantages over running software on your computer or a server. Why its often a better way for charities to run their operations.

There are many benefits to using the cloud. The chances are you already use it, and would benefit from using it more. This article explains what the cloud is and helps you decide if it's right for your charity. 

About the cloud

The cloud is a term for describing software and services that run on the internet instead of on your computer. If something is ‘in the cloud’ it means you can access it on the internet, from any device. It does not live on your computer or your organisation’s servers. 

The cloud is not new. Applications and services running online have been around as long as the internet. However, they have evolved in the last five years. Their features and flexibility now mean you can run all your organisation’s operations from the cloud.

Most applications now run on the cloud

Microsoft Office applications (Word, Excel, PowerPoint etc.) used to only work offline. But now you can use them online through a web browser. 

Or think of Google documents. You choose who can see and collaborate on each document. This is easier than creating a document you have to save on your computer and then email to others.

At least 90% of organisations are using the cloud, so there is a high chance you will benefit from moving your organisation’s work there.

Six advantages of moving to the cloud

1. Resilience: your services are more reliable 

Not using the cloud makes you reliant on computer storage or physical servers. Physical servers are computer hardware serving the needs of multiple users.

This means that you need to have technology, processes and people in place to handle an outage or issue with the server. Problems can result in losing data or difficulty accessing it. This can be costly and complicated to set up and maintain. 

When you use cloud-based services any outages or issues are handled for you. For example, Microsoft and Google are operating on a fully resilient network of servers. If one server experiences a problem, a backup will already exist. That way you don't lose emails or files. They have expert teams dedicated to maintaining resilient platforms so that you don’t need to think about it.

2. Security: Your services are more secure 

If you have your own server then you need specialists to build security across all your software, services, and devices. You have to control who has access to each of your resources and then secure how they access these resources. This is complicated and requires ongoing technical input.

Cloud services are different. Their security specialists make sure your data is secure. Usually their security is more advanced than non-cloud setups of most small-medium sized charities. Their designers provide you with easy to use tools to control access to your information.

Security updates are needed regularly for systems to stay secure. Entrusting responsibility to a cloud service provider reduces risk and cost. 

Cloud security still needs care however. You need to set up and implement its security correctly for your organisation’s needs.

3. Flexibility: you can adjust features and capacity without learning specialist skills.

Cloud services are not limited in the same way physical servers are. 

For example, if your organisation employs more staff they will need access to your systems. With a cloud service you only need purchase more licences. 

Server-based software, however, may reach its user or feature capacity and need upgrading or replacing. This requires specialist staff and can be costly. You might also need additional configuration and security controls.

With a cloud service if a part of your organisation downsizes you simply stop or reduce licence payments. 

The cloud is designed to be flexible for your needs and can grow and shrink with you. If you double your headcount, you won’t need to worry about storage space on your server to handle additional files. If your website experiences an increase in traffic you can increase its resources with a few button clicks.  

4. Mobility: your services and data can be accessed securely from anywhere, anytime, from any device.

The ability to work from anywhere has become critical. This is a key premise of cloud-based systems. Any person, working from any device in any location, can be connected to team members and to organisational data. Secure logins and appropriate protocols will ensure your data is only shared with those who should see it.

5. Maintainability: software or hardware upgrades or patches are done for you.

When running your own servers, you are responsible for upgrading hardware and software. You need to do this anytime updates and security patches are released. This requires specialist IT skills and/or the support of an IT partner.  

Cloud based solutions ensure that all the underlying software and hardware is up to date and current. You don’t need to worry about it. For example, if you are using Google Workspace, you will get all new features and patches as they are released.  

6. Budgetability: costs are simpler and more transparent leading to savings and efficiencies.

Purchasing your own servers and software can be expensive, with regular maintenance an ongoing cost. Major upgrades and replacements create additional costs. If your organisation grows you will likely need to enhance the server infrastructure. These costs can spiral and are difficult to plan for.

With a cloud-based solution you usually pay on a subscription/licensing model. Costs are limited to set-up support and monthly fees. Fees are defined by your subscription and the number of user licences you need. Organisational growth can be accommodated by simply paying for more licences.  

Non-profit discount programmes on cloud services

All major software companies have excellent non-profit discount programmes. For example:

  • Google Workspace is 100% free for charities.  
  • Microsoft offer ten Office 365 licences free. All subsequent licences are hugely discounted.
  • Microsoft Azure (developer and hosting solutions) offer a subscription sponsorship programme entitling you to $3500 worth of credits a year e.g. enough to host your website. 
  • Amazon Web Services (AWS) (developer and hosting solutions) also offer a charity programme providing $2000 of credits per year to use against any of their services i.e. enough to host your website. 

Remember that using the cloud still carries ongoing operational costs. And you may need internal IT know-how or an IT partner to manage implementation of some cloud-based services.

Why might you not move to the cloud?

There are a few reasons why you may choose to stay with a self-hosted solution:

  • You have decided your current systems are fine and you don’t need the benefits described above.
  • You already have an established and resilient setup and a trusted IT partner. You don’t feel any need to change. 
  • You have existing legacy proprietary software.
  • You have some specialist software installed on your servers for which no viable cloud solution is available (this situation may be a risk for your organisation).
  • You have data storage concerns. Perhaps your organisation has tight regulations over where your data is stored. Most cloud providers now allow you to select where your data will be hosted. If you host your website in Azure or AWS you can select UK locations. Paid for Google Workspace accounts (still discounted) allow you to choose a UK location, as do some Microsoft subscriptions.  

Get the guide

Now you have an understanding of the cloud and its main advantages, check out DOT PROJECT’s guide on moving to the cloud

Attribution

This article and the guide is based on DOT PROJECT’s Moving to the cloud: A guide for nonprofits. Thanks to them for the permission to reuse.


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