Nonprofit Board Talk
Nonprofit Board Discussion – What is Cloud Computing?

It’s difficult to have a true discussion on cloud computing if most of the people in the room don’t know what it is.  It’s a buzz phase so everyone has heard of it but how many board members really know what it means?  I’m a person with an IT background so I’m usually asked to explain what cloud computing is.  I can see faces change as I explain it and understanding hits.

Most nonprofit boards will face this question at some point.  Here’s a short version of the explanation I give to this question.  I hope it helps when your board has the discussion.  The explanation is simple.  The best way to understand cloud computing is to compare it to the other forms of computing available to most nonprofits:

“Local” Computing – You are computing locally if all your programs (or software) and data is stored on your PC’s (or laptop’s) hard drive.  If you have a flash drive or external hard drive, you are still computing “locally”.

Server Computing (or Client/Server Computing) – Your nonprofit owns or leases a server.  When you connect to the office network, you can open files stored on that server.  In this case, the programs (Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, etc.) are installed on your PC but you store the files (or data) on the server.  This is very common with databases.

Enterprise Computing – In this case, both the software and the data is stored on your office server.  All the user has to do is type a web address.  You don’t have to make sure the software in installed first.  (There are exceptions to this but that’s another blog post.)

The key here is your nonprofit owns or leases the server.  The server is in your office or downstairs in the basement or at the data center.  You can see it, hug it, or take a picture of it.  You have a staff person or contractor that has to maintain it.  From time-to-time, you have to fix it or replace it.  The good part is, you have a server that gives you extended computing power.  The bad part is, you have a costly server that requires specialized skills to maintain.

Cloud Computing (or Cloud Services) – Do you want the extended computing power without the costly server?  Cloud computing can do it!  There are companies with data centers full of servers.  You can “rent” or “share” space on those servers.  You can get access to the software on those servers.  Just sign up as a customer and type in a web address.  Google Docs, Microsoft 360, Yahoo Mail, Evernote, Box.net and SalesForce.com are all cloud services.  When you log into your account to get your data, you have no idea where that server is located.  That’s cloud computing!

This is a VERY simple explanation of cloud computing.  Experts spend hours talking about the types of service, levels of service, software options and vendors available in the cloud world?  This explanation is only to begin the discussion.  You need advice and support from experts as you move into the cloud.  Good luck on the journey!

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Brent Jackson