Looking at Clouds from Many Sides

Looking at Clouds from Many Sides

I run a nonprofit called Aspiration that helps foundations and nonprofits use technology more effectively. Nonprofits ask questions about the cloud all the time: What is the cloud? Should we move to the cloud? Is the cloud right for us? Which is the best cloud platform?

While the answers to such questions depend on many factors the central message we have to share with organizations is that the issue is not so much when and whether to move to the cloud, but how. Having not only a plan, but also a backup plan, are essential aspects of intentional migration. I also emphasize a “technology last” approach and focus first on engaging and understanding the needs of users and documenting the business processes the new technology will support.

What is the cloud, and why do I care?

In simple terms, cloud refers to hosted software applications running online, used to access functionality and maintain data, employing little more than a web browser on a computer or mobile device.

Done right, using the cloud enables organizations to focus more on their business processes and less on the technology that underpins them. The network host is responsible for maintaining the technology, which eliminates the knowledge barrier between users and data. Users have access to cloud applications from anywhere they have access to the Internet.

Although enthusiastic cloud vendors and advocates may demonstrate great reverence for The Cloud, there is no such thing as a singular or canonical cloud. Rather, the cloud is a concept, a dizzying array of technologies and services that fall under the umbrella of cloud technologies.

There are certainly things I love about models of working enabled by the cloud. Cloud technologies can reduce collaboration barriers, as there is much less fighting with firewalls and IT staff for access to servers and documents. Real time collaborations, such as co-creating a document on a conference call, have been an epiphany to me. Hosted tools also create new opportunities for open work, enabling me to invite others into my work and my thinking. I appreciate the broadened availability that cloud tools provide; I don’t have to have or be near my own Internet devices to accomplish many tasks. Just as important, though more complex to quantify, is the serendipity that cloud computing creates working in real time with more people from more locations means that interesting things just happen.

In spite of these incredible benefits, I recommend restraint and caution in moving mission-critical activities to the cloud. We are young in the history of hosted software, and much remains un-
solved and un-integrated. There are myriad cloud platforms and services vying for your business, each competing to be a new data silo on your organization’s information landscape, and very few are likely to exist in anything resembling their current state even five years from now.

While the cloud is a game-changing paradigm in its own right, a great deal of cloud interest for grantmakers stems from the IT Problem. Information technology is complex, ever evolving, and almost never core to the mission for grantmakers. IT expenditures are expensive and difficult to cost manage, and staffing is often a struggle, too—it is a challenge to find and retain talent, and traditional perceptions of IT staff create social and communications barriers as well.

With the sound of virtual trumpets, the cloud often is pitched as the solution to the IT Problem. Breathless cloud advocates implore the range of possibilities: the cloud is easier, the cloud saves time and money, the cloud reduces staffing needs, the cloud is more secure, the cloud slims and tones you while you sleep! There is a lot of truth in many of those claims, but many corresponding devils dwell in the details.

Look at the Cloud from More Than One Side

There are two ways of envisioning the cloud: the way it is sold and the way it actually works.

The cloud of lore is a holistic, unified realm of integrated information goodness, a singular honey pot of productivity empowerment. You put your data into hosted apps that understand how you want to work, and place your focus on strategy and impact, not operations and upkeep.

The 2012 cloud of grantmaker reality is a fragmented, silo’ed plurality of online resources, tools, and data sets that rarely talk to each other, require separate credentials and administration, and involve many varying usage models.so where does that leave you in terms of exploring and migrating to cloud alternatives?

At Aspiration, we look at the cloud through the lenses of organizational development and sustainability. We believe a primary operational goal for .orgs is to control their long-term technology destiny. As you explore migration to the cloud, prioritize solutions that leave you in control of your information assets and long-term options. And move there incrementally, not all at once.

Sort the Technology Last

We believe that the path to sustainable cloud adoption should be workflow-oriented. Think in terms of moving specific sets of related business processes to a centralized setting. Inventory your organization’s categories of technology-supported processes operations, finance, communications, project management, grants management and identify those areas where the cloud offers potential for substantial productivity gain.

Migrate lower-risk processes first, and allow staff to gain cloud experience and skill before moving mission-critical workflows. Total migration to the cloud should not be your goal; we passionately believe that there are many responsibilities that are better managed locally, especially when sensitive information is involved.

It’s All About the Data

The tragedy of the 501c financial reality is that there are budget line items for software, budget line items for hardware, and budget line items for tech labor, but there are rarely line items for data.
As you consider the cloud, it’s about the data, not the technology. Your data is your digital power, and well-maintained data will outlive any technology that contains it. We recommend that organizations center their cloud thinking on this singular truth. Understand that, by extension, technology in all its forms serves only as vessel to manage and shepherd your data into the future.

Work With a Realistic Understanding of Cloud Relationships

To protect your data and remain sustainable in the long term, it is essential to understand how most for-profit cloud companies view their priorities.

The first priority for providers is almost always delivering returns to major investors and shareholders; this is a legal mandate for publicly traded companies in the U.S. It follows, then, that the second priority is major revenue sources. Next in line are the primary users, who drive major revenues, and, subsequently, data gleaned from users and revenue sources that in turn drive follow-on revenues.

Foundations and nonprofit organizations should couch their thinking in the fact that we are not a high priority for the vast majority of cloud technology providers, no matter what the sales team tells you.

All of which informs Aspiration’s Cloud Fatalism. In general, we strive to convey that all tech relationships should be predicated on divorce. Nothing tech lasts forever.

We encourage organizations to follow the Hollywood marriage rule; pre-nup thinking is critical. In practical terms, this means modeling for the end of the relationship, particularly eventual (or sudden) data migration, by verifying data export on a regular basis and showing restraint towards over-dependence on unique features that lock users into a specific platform.

Aspiration’s Cloud Pre-Nup Checklist covers two major areas: relationships and assets.

Relationship questions:

  • Can we leave when we want, and take our data with us when we go?
  • Do you share our values and support our mission, or do you just want our money and data?
  • Can we talk to other clouds in this relationship, sharing data and interoperating with other platforms?
  • Who else is hanging out in this cloud, and does this cloud provider have any conflicts of interest in who they provide services to?
  • Can we put this service behind our domain name, or do we need to use a web address that the vendor owns?

Asset questions:

  • Can we export our data on demand in open, complete formats?
  • Is our data really our data, or do you assert any ownership?
  • Who else can look at our data?
  • Is our data secure, encryptable, and truly private?
  • In what legal jurisdiction is our data stored?
  • What is your policy regarding government requests for data?

Why ask all these arguably esoteric questions? Most cloud solutions represent uniquely un-leveraged relationships that amount to single points of failure, and those are not as cool as they used to be. If a cloud provider fails or just decides to cut you off in any way, it is very difficult to reconnect with your data. The U.S. government recently shut down megaupload.com due to alleged pirating of movies and music; there are still hundreds of thousands of law-abiding users trying to recover their data, which was taken offline by the same action.

In short, there’s looking, there’s leaping, and there’s having a Plan B, and the sequencing of those actions matter when migrating to the cloud. If you are going to depend on a cloud technology, you want to have confidence in it before you depend on it, and you want to know how you will handle matters if things don’t work out.

Identity Issues

As already mentioned, the cloud doesn’t really exist. In reality, the cloud is a collection of many different online platforms and services to which you can subscribe. And when you log in to Cloud Platform A for one purpose and Cloud Platform B for another, most such systems treat you like they are your only cloud relationship.

Anyone who makes serious use of cloud platforms manages dozens of credentials, from constituent relationship management systems to online content management to social media accounts to project management tools to newsletter platforms to hosted financial packages and, slowly but surely, to hosted grants management platforms.

To describe organizational identities online as fragmented is an understatement. A quiet but intense battle currently rages for control of online identity services. When Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other cloud companies invite you to log in to a range of online accounts using credentials they supply, they are essentially vying to become your online identity broker.

Right now, you have to have many brokers—there is no way to use one set of credentials to access all your cloud accounts across the range of vendors. This creates an administrative nightmare, not only for day-to-day use of the cloud but in special circumstances where changing credentials quickly and uniformly is necessary, such as a when key staff members depart.

And this is only half the challenge with online identity. In the cloud, organizational identities and individual identities readily blur. A classic example of this is on Facebook, where organizational accounts are not allowed. All accounts belong to individuals, and, by terms of use, Facebook users are not allowed to create separate accounts for personal and work activities. So when an organization establishes a page to manage social network relationships, that page is actually owned by individuals, who more than likely associate their Facebook accounts with a personal rather than a work email address.

Another classic blurring of identity online in the cloud involves the use of Google Docs. Often when inviting colleagues into a Google doc using their .org addresses, they respond with a familiar request: Can you invite my Gmail address, not my .org address? At this point some ownership complexity arises: a document related to the work of one or more organizations is now being accessed, edited, and potentially shared or downloaded by an email address not controlled by any organization.

You need clear policies for distinguishing where your organization asserts control and ownership in the cloud.

We encourage those considering their cloud options to judge cloud companies by their primary unit of identity. For Google and Facebook, identity is based on the individual, whereas platforms like Basecamp and SalesForce center identity on the organization, which can in turn grant access and permissions to individuals and other organizations.

You need to consider whether cloud platforms are using you as a gateway to your users, or empowering you to manage your users. We encourage decision makers to favor cloud providers that give preference to the organization above the individual.

So What is a Grantmaker to Do About the Cloud?

In exploring migration to cloud technologies, organizations should focus on the three pillars of enterprise technology: people first, then processes, and, finally, technology.

First, honor your people. Take a user-centric approach to considering cloud technologies, exploring how users in your organization might like to access cloud applications. Are they smart phone and laptop users, or more traditional desktop denizens? What do they like about their current environment that they don’t want to lose? What isn’t working well that might be mitigated by cloud-based options? Acknowledge that cultural change is hard, and leverage the cloud opportunity to improve processes.

Next, hone your processes. You cannot make effective use of any technology if you aren’t letting your business processes drive how and where you employ technology. Inventory categories of workflow, such as grants management, project management, or document management, and base your migrations on strategic workflow groups rather than the tools that will support them.

And then there is technology. Take an iterative approach rather than placing any large bets right away. Make cloud migration a process of incremental research and adoption. Study and discuss what peer organizations are doing, and copy their best practices. Don’t trailblaze. Unless of course you are a trailblazer.

As with all things technology, prioritize interoperability. Favor platforms that support open standards for importing and exporting data, as well as those that expose interfaces that allow integration with other platforms. If possible, use cloud solutions based on free and open source software, as that increases the likelihood that more than one provider will understand your data in the long term. Do not adopt anything with browser-specific features; just ask anyone stuck on Internet Explorer version 6 about that.

Prioritize values-aligned hosting. Whenever possible, store your data with vendors in solidarity with your causes. ElectricEmbers.org and their NPOGroups.org is a great discussion
platform. Riseup.net and MayFirst.org provide principled hosting for nonprofits and activists. ProjectFluxx.org is an exciting new open source grants management platform being developed by grantmakers.

As you evolve towards the cloud, build in redundancy. Favor cloud platforms that enable backup to third party services like Amazon S3, as well as rich offline synchronization. Because, yes, while the cloud simplifies IT and storage challenges, it is still very smart to keep local copies whenever possible.

The sad truth is that few cloud vendors today offer most of the capabilities described above, but having organizations look and ask for them repeatedly and collectively will help drive a more open, favorable cloud ecosystem.

Clearing Up the Cloud

The cloud is not a fad and it really can deliver benefits: potential for innovative ways of serving and engaging grantees; new modes for building allies, support, and awareness; and, key for
budget-strapped, under resourced nonprofits, collaboration, cost savings, and convenience. Intention is key to adopting and migrating to any new technology, as are best practice guidelines. For example:

  • Involve your users in process from Day 0, and stay in dialog throughout the process, honoring their feedback
  • Base migrations on your workflows, not their tools
  • Assert control and portability of your data
  • Maximize control of your online identity
  • Have fallback plans at the ready
  • Rinse and repeat

At its core, the cloud has the ability to help organizations focus on impact, not on IT. These are exciting times for new paradigms. There is more than one way to get from here to there. The journey should be the .org reward: make your organization’s path one of greatest sustainability, not least resistance.

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