Tech Tips From The Nonprofit Technology Conference

This article was first published on the Idealware Blog in May of 2010.

Last month, I reported on the first annual Tech Track, a series of sessions presented at the April, 2010 Nonprofit Technology Conference. In that post I listed the topics covered in the five session track. Today I want to discuss some of the answers that the group came up with.

Session 1: Working Without a Wire

This session covered wireless technologies, from cell phones to laptops. Some conclusions:

The state of wireless is still not 100%, but it’s better than it was last year and it’s still improving Major metropolitan areas are well covered; remote areas (like Wyoming) are not. There are alternatives, such as Satellite, but that still requires that your location be in unobstructed satellite range. All in all, we can’t assume that wireless access is a given, and the challenge is more about managing staff expectations than installing all of the wireless by ourselves. It will get there.
Wireless security options are improving. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), remote access solutions (such as Citrix, VNC andTerminal Services) are being provided for more devices and platforms, and the major smartphone companies are supporting enterprise features like remote device wipes.
Policy-wise, more orgs are moving to a module where staff buy their own smartphones and the companies reimburse a portion of the bill to cover business use. Some companies set strict password policies for accessing office content; others don’t.

Session 2: Proper Plumbing

This session was pitched as covering virtualization and other server room technologies, but when we quizzed the participants, virtualization was at the top of their list, so that’s what we focused on.

We established that virtualizing servers is a recommended practice. If you have a consultant recommending it and you don’t trust their recommendation, find another consultant and have them virtualize your systems, because the recommendation is a good one, but it’s a problem that you don’t trust your consultant!
The benefits of virtualization are numerous — reduced budgets, reduced carbon footprints, instant testing environments, 24/7 availability (if you can upgrade a copy of a server and then switch it back live, an advanced virtualization function).
There’s no need to rush it — it’s easier on the budget and the staff, as well as the environment, to replace standalone servers with virtualized ones as the hardware fails.
On the planning side, bigger networks do better by moving all of their data to a Storage Area Network (SAN) before virtualizing. This allows for even more flexibility and reduced costs, as servers are strictly operating systems with software and data is stored on fast, redundant disk arrays that can be accessed by any server, virtual or otherwise.

Session 3: Earth to Cloud

The cloud computing session focused a lot on comparisons. While the general concern is that hosting data with a third party is risky, is it any more risky than hosting it on our own systems? Which approach is more expensive? Which affords the most freedom to work with our data and integrate systems? How do we manage disaster recovery and business continuity in each scenario?

Security – Everyone is hackable, and Google and Salesforce have a lot more expertise in securing data systems than we do. So, from a “is your data safe?” perspective, it’s at least a wash. But if you have sensitive client data that needs to be protected from subpoenas, as well as or more than hackers, than you might be safer hosting your own systems.
Cost – We had no final answers; it will vary from vendor to vendor. But the cost calculation needs to figure in more than dollars spent — staff time managing systems is another big expense of technology.
Integration and Data Management – Systems don’t have to be in the same room to be integrated; they have to have robustAPIs. And internal systems can be just as locked as external if your contract with the vendor doesn’t give you full access and control over your data. This, again, was a wash.
Risk Management – There’s a definite risk involved if your outsourced host goes out of business. But there are advantages to being hosted, as many providers offer multiply-redundant systems. Google, in particular, writes every save on a Google Doc or GMail to two separate server farms on two different continents.
It all boils down to assessing the maturity of the vendors and negotiating contracts carefully, to cover all of the risks. Don’t sign up with the guy who hosts his servers from his basement; and have a detailed continuity plan in place should the vendor close up shop.
┬áIf you’re a small org (15 staff or less), it’s almost a no-brainer that it will be more cost-effective and safer to host your email and data in the cloud, as opposed to running our own complex CRMs and Exchange servers. If you’re a large org, it might be much more complex, as larger enterprise apps sometimes depend on that Exchange server being in place. But, all in all, Cloud computing is a viable option that might be a good fit for you — check it out, thoroughly.

I’ll finish this thread up with one more post on budgeting and change management in the next few weeks.

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