Got your head in the cloud? Cloud computing made simple

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The cloud has become a buzzword over the last couple of years, and its use has exploded across the world. Essentially, the cloud is made up of groups of distributed servers, hosted in data centres all over the world. Organisations can buy access to these services, similar to the way they access utilities – they buy access to what they need, and only pay for what they use.

Also known as cloud computing, the cloud offers a new way of accessing servers and computing resources that organisations need to run. These cloud server resources are similar in concept to technology we had in the 1990s, but on a much greater scale, and much more affordable.

For many organisations, cloud computing replaces that dusty old server in the dark corner of the office. Cloud computing can be used to host emails, calendars, files, websites, and much more.

The centralised nature of cloud computing, with data stored offsite in a secure data centre, makes it possible employees to access organisation information wherever they are. This is increasingly important with the widespread use of smartphones and tablets, so that emails and files stored in the cloud can be accessed from mobiles and home computers.

You may even be already using the cloud, and simply unaware of it. It has become an essential part of today’s digital life. Products like Microsoft Office 365, Google Apps, Dropbox, OneDrive, iCloud and many others are all cloud based.

There are three key forms of cloud technology:

  • Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) is essentially a cloud-based server for organisations. Software can be installed onto it and then the server can be configured to suit different needs. This can function as a replacement for an in-house server or supplement it for short term needs. An example is Connecting Up’s discounted Infrastructure as a Service offering, which can do everything from host a Microsoft SQL Server to host a website.
  • Platform as a Service (PaaS) is a less common offering, but provides some of the basics needed, such as operating system, web server and databases. A common example is Microsoft’s Azure platform.
  • Software as a Service (SaaS) is probably the most common form of cloud technology on the market. In this model, access to software similar to a phone bill is bought, and the company selling the software is then responsible for updates, security, installing and managing the software. There are many examples of SaaS software, including Mailchimp, Office 365, MYOB Essentials, and even Facebook to an extent.

SaaS has become a hugely popular cloud technology model, driven by the ‘freemium’ model favoured by many providers. This allows free access to a basic or limited version of the software, while paid access opens up more advanced features and functionality. This has driven down the cost of technology that used to only be within reach of large corporations to a point where small NFP organisations can now access the same software.

At the same time, software providers like Microsoft now donate cloud based technology to NFP organisations and provide substantial savings. Through Microsoft’s Office 365 donation program, NFPs can access cloud based Exchange email and calendar hosting, Lync video conferencing, and secure unlimited OneDrive for Business file storage for free. The donated licences are the same as those used by huge corporations like BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, and the Queensland Government, but without the cost!

This software has been available to NFPs through the Microsoft software donation program for a number of years. The functionality has been available for a while, but it is only now that organisations don’t have to worry about purchasing and configuring servers that it is more attainable for many.

Cloud technology will continue to evolve over time as cloud services and mobile devices become more advanced. In the meantime, before replacing the server in the office, organisations should ask themselves the question: “Will we be better served by migrating to the cloud?” The answer may very well be yes.

This post originally appeared in Third Sector Magazine, May 2015.

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