You've likely heard a lot about "cloud computing". And what's true is that the sales-talk about computing in the cloud certainly makes the conceptual issues behind it, honestly, well, cloudy. So I'm going to try and lay out the details of what cloud computing is, and how it's useful for nonprofit organizations.
Quick definition: Cloud computing is basically running applications on the web via "Software as a Service (SaaS)". That includes applications from Google Documents, to Salesforce.com, to Gliffy.com, (the service I used to create that graphic.) It also includes applications that you might develop (or have developed) that are hosted outside your network. That's really all it is - there isn't anything fancy about it. It still requires the hardware and operating systems, and databases that more traditional applications that are inside your network require, but, generally, you hand off that responsibility to the folks that host your application, and access the application through the internet.
Advantages to cloud computing: The basic advantages are that you don't have to maintain infrastructure for applications, saving you labor costs, as well as electricity costs. Also, you can access the applications anywhere you go. Disadvantages to cloud computing Depending on the vendor and the application, you are dependent on them to keep the application up and your data intact. Changes in the application happen without your knowledge or consent. Your data is not directly in your hands, but in the hands of a third party. You are dependent on your internet connection - which could be a problem for mission-critical applications.
What makes it possible: Cloud computing is made possible and easier by two trends, two that have happened closely in parallel, one that is relatively recent: High bandwidth to the curb and massive data centers. High bandwidth to your home or office is a necessary requirement to cloud computing. Cloud computing just doesn't make any sense, or work in any reasonable way without it (have you ever tried to use Gmail on dial up?) As the bandwidth available increases (via FiOS, and other methods) cloud computing will get even more attractive to organizations and people. Huge data centers are being thrown up everywhere, and more and more companies are getting into the business of providing hosting for SaaS developers. Companies such as Amazon are creating massive grid storage and computing services for applications in the cloud.
What makes it usable: Newer applications are using AJAX and Flash, to give the kinds of functionalities we've come to expect with desktop applications - so it's just like having a desktop application with our data - except it's "in the cloud" not on our desk. As the limitations of both AJAX and Flash are overcome (and as both develop further) expect even more usability for online applications. And, further, efforts like Adobe AIR, and Microsoft Silverlight, are bringing full-fledged desktop application functionality to applications in the cloud. What you should do
- Make an assessment - will using this online tool really save money or time, or facilitate collaboration in ways that is not possible with local apps?
- Always maintain your own backups. If the provider goes belly up with your data, you're toast.
- Make sure access is secure. Read up on the security of the application