This post originally appeared on the Idealware Blog in February of 2009.
My big post contrasting full blown Microsoft Exchange Server with cloud-based Gmail drew a couple of comments from friends in Seattle. Jon Stahl of One/Northwest pointed out, helpfully, that MS sells it’s Small Business Server product to companies with a maximum of 50 employees, and that greatly simplifies and reduces cost for Exchange. After that, Patrick Shaw of NPower Seattle took it a step further, pointing out that MS Small Business Server, with a support arrangement from a great company like NPower (the “great” is my addition – I’m a big fan), can cost as little as $4000 a year and provide Windows Server, Email, Backup and other functions, simplifying a small office’s technology and outsourcing the support. This goes a long way towards making the chaos I described affordable and attainable for cash and resource strapped orgs.
What I assume Npower knows, though, and hope that other nonprofit technical support providers are aware of, is that this is the outdated approach. Nonprofits should be looking to simplify technology maintenance and reduce cost, and the cloud is a more effective platform for that. As ReadWriteWeb points out, most small businesses — and this can safely be assumed to include nonprofits — are completely unaware of the benefits of cloud computing and virtualization. If your support arrangement is for dedicated, outsourced management of technology that is housed at your offices, then you still have to purchase that hardware and pay someone to set it up. The benefits of virtualization and fast, ubiquitous Internet access offer a new model that is far more flexible and affordable.
One example of a company that gets this is MyGenii. They offer virtualized desktops to nonprofits and other small businesses. As I came close to explaining in my Lean, Green, Virtualized Machine post, virtualization is technology that allows you to, basically, run many computers on one computer. The environmental and financial benefits of doing what you used to do on multiple systems all on one system are obvious, but there are also huge gains in manageability. When a PC is a file that can be copied and modified, building new and customized PCs becomes a trivial function. Take that one step further – that this virtual PC is stored on someone else’s property, and you, as a user, can load it up and run it from your home PC, laptop, or (possibly) your smartphone, and you now have flexible, accessible computing without the servers to support.
For the tech support service, they either run large servers with virtualization software (there are many powerful commercial and open source systems available), or they use an outsourced storage platform like Amazon’s EC2 service. In addition to your servers, they also house your desktop operating systems. Running multiple servers and desktops on single servers is far more economical; it better utilizes the available server power, reducing electricity costs and helping the environment; and backups and maintenance are simplified. The cost savings of this approach should benefit both the provider and the client.
In your office, you still need networked PCs with internet access. But all you need on those computers is a basic operating system that can boot up and connect to the hosted, virtualized desktop. Once connected, that desktop will recognize your printers and USB devices. If you make changes, such as changing your desktop wallpaper or adding an Outlook plugin, those changes will be retained. The user experience is pretty standard. But here’s a key benefit — if you want to work from home, or a hotel, or a cafe, then you connect to the exact same desktop as the one at work. It’s like carrying your computer everywhere you go, only without the carrying part required.
So, it’s great that there are mission focused providers out there who will affordably support our servers. But they could be even more affordable, and more effective, as cloud providers, freeing us from having to own and manage any servers in the first place.