SaaS and Security

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in May of 2009.

My esteemed colleague Michelle Murrain lobbed the first volley in our debate over whether tis safer to host all of your data at home, or to trust a third party with it. The debate is focused on Software as a Service (SaaS) as a computing option for small to mid-sized nonprofits with little internal IT expertise. This would be a lot more fun if Michelle was dead-on against the SaaS concept, and if I was telling you to damn the torpedos and go full speed ahead with it. But we’re all about the rational analysis here at Idealware, so, while I’m a SaaS advocate and Michelle urges caution, there’s plenty of give and take on both sides.

Michelle makes a lot of sound points, focusing on the very apt one that a lack of organizational technology expertise will be just as risky a thing in an outsourced arrangement as it is in-house. But I only partially agree.

  • Security: Certainly, bad security procedures are bad security procedures, and that risk exists in both environments. But beyond the things that could be addressed by IT-informed policies, there are also the security precautions that require money to invest in and staff to support, like encryption and firewalls. I reject the argument that the data is safer on an unsecured, internal network than it is in a properly secured, PCI-Compliant, hosted environment. You’re not just paying the SaaS provider to manage the servers that you manage today; you’re paying them to do a more thorough and compliant job at it.
  • Backups: Many tiny nonprofits don’t have reliable backup in place; a suitable SaaS provider will have that covered. While you will also want them to provide local backups (either via scheduled download or regular shipment of DVDs), even without that, it’s conceivable that the hosted situation will provide you with better redundancy than your own efforts.
  • Data Access: Finally, data access is key, but I’ve seen many cases where vendor licensing restricts users from working with their own data on a locally installed server. Being able to access your data, report on it, back it up, and, if you choose, globally update it is the ground floor that you negotiate to for any data management system, be it hosted or not. To counter Michelle, resource-strapped orgs might be better off with a hosted system that comes with data management services than an internal one that requires advanced SQL training to work with.

Where we might really not see eye to eye on this is in our perception of how ‘at risk” these small nonprofits are, and I look at things like increasing governmental and industry regulation of internal security around credit cards and donor information as a time bomb for many small orgs, who might soon find themselves facing exorbitant fines or criminal charges for being your typical nonprofit, managing their infrastructure on a shoestring and, by necessity, skimping on some of the best practices. It’s simple – the more we invest in administration, the worse we look in our Guidestar ratings. In that scenario, outsourcing this expertise is a more affordable and reliable option than trying to staff to it, or, worse, hope we don’t get caught.

But one point of Michelle’s that I absolutely agree with is that IT-starved nonprofits lack the internal expertise to properly assess hosting environments. In any outsourcing arrangement, the vendors have to be thoroughly vetted, with complete assurances about your access to data, their ability to protect it, and their plans for your data if their business goes under. Just as you wouldn’t delegate your credit card processing needs to some kid in a basement, you can trust your critical systems to some startup with no assurance of next year’s funding. So this is where you make the right investments, avail yourself of the type of information that Idealware provides, and hire a consultant.

To me, there are two types of risk: The type you take, and the type you foster by assuming that your current practices will suffice in an ever-changing world (more on this next week). Make no mistake, SaaS is a risky enterprise. But managing your own technology without tech-savvy staff on hand is something worse than taking a risk – it’s setting yourself up for disaster. While there are numerous ways to mitigate that, none of them are dollar or risk free, and SaaS could prove to be a real bang for your buck alternative, in the right circumstances.

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