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Associations Now

What You Need to Know About Cloud Computing

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, December 2009, Feature

By: Stephen Pelletier

Summary: "Cloud computing" has gotten buzz of late as a way to make your IT operations more efficient and save on staff costs. But the cloud isn't perfect for every association, and it's worth studying your needs and the kind of options a vendor is offering before diving in. (Titled "So Long, Server Room" in print edition.)

Conventional thinking about association computing assumes that each organization maintains its own Kingdom of IT—an expensive bundle of assets locked behind the organization's front door. With servers, software, hardware, and staff, the kingdom requires constant care. And with an insatiable thirst for upgrades and growth, it's always hungry for money, too.

A growing number of associations have found that they can do just fine without a lot of the computing accouterments that others are convinced they must own. We're talking about the emerging power of "cloud computing," a phrase that can mean many different things. For our purposes, we'll keep it simple: For the user, cloud computing means accessing software applications, data, and shared computing power on demand through the internet. The cloud model assumes that an organization's core computer power resides offsite and is essentially subscribed to rather than owned. Similarly, data are stored remotely and accessed when needed, from wherever the user happens to be.

Some experts place software as a service (SaaS) under the cloud-computing umbrella. In that model, a customer buys access to software, not the software itself. Accessible anywhere, anytime, SaaS also means someone other than the user takes care of installations, patches, upgrades, and troubleshooting. A customer pays for usage and can readily scale use up or down depending on need.

No one system is perfect for every association, of course. There are pros and cons to every technology, and the potential cost savings of working in the cloud don't come without their own costs.

Associations in the Cloud 

Five Tips for Vendor Agreements

Apart from issues of pricing and systems compatibility, here are five critical considerations before diving into the cloud:

1. Service delivery. Exactly what services will the vendor provide and exactly how will those services be delivered?
2.  Performance. What steps will the vendor take to ensure that business applications run continuously, seamlessly, and flawlessly? What are the specifications and performance expectations for factors like uptime, response time, and accessibility? What financial sanctions can you assess if those conditions are not met?
3. Disaster recovery. In the case of a breakdown, what specific steps will the vendor take, and on what timeframe, to correct the situation? What strategy and infrastructure does the vendor have in place to ensure availability and access to backed-up data?
4. Security. What specific steps will the vendor take to ensure that data are kept secure and confidential? How does the vendor stop such challenges as viruses and hackers?
5. Risk management. Do the vendor's standards and practices for cloud computing meet your association's overall requirements for risk management and mitigation?

Also, make sure your vendor agreement is detailed, written exactly to your specifications, and customized to your association's specific needs. Have outside experts review that document before you sign it.

Lynn Morton, manager of marketing technologies at the American Academy of Physician Assistants, uses the cloud to access the Google Docs suite of business software, including text documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. That's invaluable for Morton, who telecommutes part time. The cloud, she says, helps her maintain consistency in work projects whether she's in AAPA's office, at her desk at home, or on the run and accessing work via smartphone. Morton also uses cloud computing to collaborate with colleagues—for example, a team from AAPA recently used Google Docs to collaborate on a 25-page proposal.

The National Defense Industrial Association made a strategic decision several years ago to start using web-based applications, says Thomas Nordby, CAE, the association's CIO and assistant vice president for business operations. NDIA's e-commerce totals more than $20 million annually. NDIA has used Avectra's NetForum membership management software, a web-based association management solution, since 1996. The association also relies on Microsoft SharePoint, which supports internet, intranet, and extranet websites; A2Z's exhibit management system; and the SaaS solution MagnetMail for email-based product marketing. NDIA also uses a proprietary financial-management forecasting system that's based in the cloud. Nordby says NDIA has carefully examined every one of its business processes with an eye toward "web-ifying" them. Today, he says, "everything we do is web based. It's just the way of living here."

Nordby says that since 2001, NDIA has doubled its budget—from $15 million to $30 million—without adding staff. He credits that success in part to the association's decision to adopt a business model that relies intrinsically on cloud computing. NDIA has controlled costs, especially those associated with personnel, while expanding revenues. Web-based conference hosting allows NDIA to add more paying customers to rosters of online meetings with virtually no additional expense. And web-based business provides NDIA with rich data that it can mine to address changes in customer behavior.

Nordby says NDIA has invested significantly in its web-based infrastructure and remains committed to updating it continually. At the same time, he says, the "incremental cost increases of continuing to grow the business volume are minimal because you put in place fully scalable solutions." Factoring such costs as hardware, security, and maintenance—as well as opportunities lost when systems are down—Nordby says that with cloud computing "there's no doubt that you end up saving in the long term if you go with an outsourced solution."

The International Legal Technology Association was an early adopter of cloud computing, partly because it's in the technology industry but also because it started as a virtual organization. ILTA opened a physical office just two years ago and still has staff who work remotely. The association's first hosted solution—an intranet—launched in 2000, followed a year later by vendor-hosted listservers, ILTA's first iteration of virtual communities.

Today, says ILTA executive director Randi Mayes, "everything we do is in the cloud. We don't have a server on premises." Among its outside-hosted components, the association has an Exchange Server, a document management system accessible via Citrix, and an AMS. Member services are available via login from ILTA's public website. ILTA's virtual communities have matured to be more akin to social networks, but they are still hosted. For its phone needs the association uses voice over internet protocol, also a hosted solution.

"I know that one size doesn't fit all" when it comes to cloud computing, Mayes says. "Right now for us, because we are a small, lean staff and we have to be progressive on the technology side, [cloud computing] is a perfect solution for us."

The Upside of the Cloud

One of attractions of cloud computing is accessibility. If your documents are in the cloud—and not locked on an office server—you can theoretically have anytime, anywhere access to those files. Cloud computing also delivers precisely the right amount of computing power. Decisions about association hardware and software are often based on worst-case scenarios—platforms need to be robust enough to accommodate the rush of conference registrations, for example. That means that equipment often sits idle or underused. Similarly, desktop computers are capable of much higher performance than they are usually challenged to deliver. That's a waste of resources.

Vendors that provide cloud-computing services bundle computing power and parcel it out on demand. Customers can draw as much or as little computing power as they need. Assuming that clients are charged accordingly, that can save money. Indeed, advocates say that scalability is one of cloud computing's big benefits. Need more computing power? Cloud computing can give you instant access to exactly what you need. Conversely, it's easy for an association to scale back.

In the cloud model, an organization's core computer power resides offsite and is essentially subscribed to rather than owned.

Associations can pay hefty fees for outside, hosted computing power. Still, there are potential cost savings. An association that embraces cloud computing does not have to make the same investments in IT hardware, software, and infrastructure as an organization that owns its own server farm. Office PCs intended to link to cloud computing, for example, don't need to be as powerful—or expensive—as more traditional computers. If you are, in effect, renting software, your outlay for that end of computing may be lower. And someone else is worrying about upgrades and debugging.

One of the largest savings can come from personnel costs. If IT needs are farmed out, the responsibility, headaches, and costs of maintenance fall to the vendor. With cloud computing, says Rob Miller, who was executive vice president of AMS company Avectra for 13 years and now heads his own company, Association CIO, vendors worry about fixing computers and servers, updating virus protection, or putting software patches on each office machine. Even desktop-computer maintenance can be contracted to a vendor who can provide service remotely. Associations might still need some in-house support—to maintain printers, for example. But cloud computing offers a way to avoid much of the business of IT support—and to get by with fewer IT staffers. "That's one of the real wins for an association," Miller says.

The cloud also offers a new level of reliability. Thanks to "virtualization technologies," a vendor's cloud software will automatically move data from a piece of hardware that goes bad or is pulled offline to a section of the system that's operational. The client gets seamless access to the data. A separate backup system, standard issue as the heart of cloud disaster-recovery strategies, typically provides another layer of dependability.

Finally, advocates of cloud computing say that work in the cloud provides a "green" alternative to paper-intensive office functions. Because it needs less hardware overall, cloud computing can reduce the environmental impact of building, shipping, housing, and ultimately destroying (or recycling) computer equipment. Similarly, offices with fewer computers consume less energy.

Healthy Skepticism

Downsides to cloud computing are obvious. Lose your internet connection and you've lost your link to the cloud. There's more than a little distrust about relinquishing control of so much of our worklives to some amorphous entity "out there." And despite the backup systems mentioned above, there's still concern over whether data in the cloud are secure. That issue made headlines last October when the phone company T-Mobile and Danger, a Microsoft-owned subsidiary that makes the T-Mobile smartphone Sidekick, announced a significant loss of individual phone users' data that was stored in the cloud, apparently without an adequate backup system.

That kind of event gives pause to association executives like Daniel Bulley, LEED AP, senior vice president of the Mechanical Contractors Association. MCA uses cloud-based computer virus protection but will likely hold off any wider use until issues like security are resolved. "This isn't something I would be willing to be an early adopter on," says Bulley.

Still, as Rob Miller points out, large associations currently trust their association management software and huge repositories of data to the cloud. ILTA's Mayes, for her part, says she's satisfied with the security protocols that guard the association's intellectual property. "When one considers the risk-mitigation and disaster-recovery elements of hosted solutions, they still seem a bargain," she says. Nordby is even more emphatic. "From a risk management perspective," he says, "I don't think associations should be in the hosting business. You can never build a strong enough infrastructure that would compete with the level that you get from a hosted facility."

When it comes to cloud security, due diligence is imperative. One criterion that informs ILTA's decisions about hosted services is proof by vendors of effective business continuity and disaster-recovery plans. Any association looking to engage in cloud computing needs to have the same level of assurances. 

In that regard, Miller says a well-thought-out service-level agreement is critical. Such documents might guarantee that the vendor will provide certain levels of computing access, reliability, safety, and speed—with benchmarks to assess whether they meet the mark and predetermined sanctions if they don't. Miller counsels associations to study vendor agreements carefully, getting outside expert advice if necessary, to ensure a level of comfort with provisions for security and confidentiality.

Mayes has a similar perspective. She counsels that even if a vendor has provided cloud-computing services for many other organizations, it won't necessarily know what's best for yours. Make sure agreements spell out exactly how you want services delivered, she says. "Regardless of the vendor's experience or client list, I think you are smart to pretend that this is the first time this vendor has ever done business in this space," she says.

What's Next?

Mayes wonders whether in some ways we are returning to a new version of the old giant mainframe model. "The ‘big brain' is not going to sit in a big box in your office," she says.

Morton says it will take time for people to get used to the principles of cloud computing. "We're all used to keeping all of our documents locked down on our server where nobody else can touch them," she says. "People are scared of letting go of control, and that's one of the hurdles that cloud computing needs to get over."

For Miller, though, the future is now. The power and sophistication of cloud computing today, he says, makes a strong case for associations to find their place in the cloud. Associations can't replicate the computing power they'll find in the cloud without a great deal of expense, Miller notes. That argument alone, he says, offers a compelling reason for associations to make the leap. 

Stephen Pelletier is a writer and editor based in the Washington, DC, area. Email:

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  Fryeij effery , February 23, 2014
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  Cloud Slam , March 20, 2010
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