Thursday, January 06, 2011

Should I Use The Cloud for my Charity's CRM Applications in 2011?

The Cloud is currently one of the buzzwords in the IT industry and you may well get great benefits from using it. As such, it makes complete sense for you to consider using it for your (new) database – but not blindly forsaking all other considerations. Treat it in the same way as you would any other technology consideration in your procurement process and if it turns out that your new database will be cloud-based then you will have done that in a proper, structured way.

Possible Benefits
The following list details some of the benefits of using the Cloud for a database application in particular, although as you will see, benefits often have considerations attached to them:
  • No software installation (although you might still need to do some configuration on your network/PCs, firewall etc to enable your organisation to access the hosting platform);
  • Thereafter, easy/automatic (invisible) upgrades, which is a great time-saver. (Although, you might want to consider if that is always a benefit if it means it happens without your knowledge and therefore if you haven’t done any regression testing on your existing system or without the ability to update end-users on changes);
  • Richer functionality than has historically been possible with web-based systems: the latest generation of web-based databases are able to utilise far better technology, flexibility and customisation that is starting to really challenge traditional ‘client-based’ database applications that have historically provided richer functionality;
  • Access: It will also be easy for anyone in your organisation to access the database from wherever they are (providing they have got at least a broadband connection), so it’s great for charities with multiple/remote offices and home users, and, increasingly now, for those who require mobile access.
And of course there are other benefits which stretch past the database application itself:
  • In terms of your IT infrastructure, the Cloud means you don’t need your own database server and all the headaches/upgrades/licensing issues and IT management which comes with that (technological and HR), and can ultimately mean a lower Total Cost of Ownership (though not always!). You can spread the costs more evenly when hosting;
  • PC specifications: for “pure” Cloud applications you may not need such high-spec clients as you would do for Windows-based applications, which in turn might mean you can keep your existing PCs for a longer period before needing to upgrade them;
  • Scalability: if you need more server space then that can be added in an instant (obviously at a cost!);
  • Security: although this has to be a consideration, some data centres will have far better (physical) security than your charity office ever could!

Possible Downsides
But you also need to consider possible issues:
  • When thinking of charity-specific requirements, from an application/functionality point of view, you will have less choice of actual databases which are especially written for the Cloud (although you can use your client-based systems and host them off-site instead), and functionality may not be as rich as some of the better client-based/Windows packages – don’t lose sight of this point at any stage;
  • Configuration and customisation: hand-in-hand with functionality, but specifically so, is the point that not all web-based solutions will provide the same level of configuration and customisation that can come with Windows packages - of course, some will, and indeed, some Windows-based databases are not that customisable, but if you need this degree of flexibiity then take note;
  • Data protection and security does need to be thought through – it isn’t impossible to ensure they are managed but don’t ignore this;
  • You will need excellent and fast enough communication links into the Cloud, from all the locations where you want to access the database from - there is nothing more likely to alienate users than a slow database system - and depending on its criticality to you, a high level of service commitment from your comms supplier(s) and maybe even some redundancy;
  • Backups: Any good host will not only take backups but probably have mirrored servers and other technology as well to assist when servers do go down. But for good business continuity planning, I wouldn’t just assume that the host will always do back-ups, so instigate your own process even if it is not daily. Plus, if there is a disaster at the host’s site or you run into contractual issues, then you will have a copy of your data – your most valuable asset – to hand if you need it.

1 comment:

David Zeidman said...

There a couple of points that I would add to this.

There is not just one type of cloud based database software. Broadly speaking you can split them in two. There is the software that you install, manage and control which happens to be in the cloud and then there is software that the vendor hosts for you. If you host it yourself you get the benefits of cloud based software with the ability to control security, update frequency etc. If the software vendor hosts the software too then you lose this control but at the same time you lose the overhead too.

When considering access, cloud based solutions are almost imperative when your organisation has many region offices. I have seen organisations that try to use a wide area network for their regions to connect to the head office. The head office connect very quickly and their software works fine whereas the regions suffer. A cloud based solution gives all equal access to the software (equally good or bad depending on each connection to the internet).