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How One SMB Rewrote IT, Starring Cloud

The Great Books Foundation, a literacy nonprofit, reshaped IT while simultaneously managing the sea change from print to e-books.

Microsoft SkyDrive Vs. Dropbox, Google: Hands-On
Microsoft SkyDrive Vs. Dropbox, Google: Hands-On
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Consider it a literary revision of the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" adage.

As the Great Books Foundation adapts to massive changes in the publishing industry and to how people read, it has likewise overhauled its IT strategy for the modern era. The educational nonprofit has moved much of the operations that support its mission to the cloud, relying on new technologies to promote a longstanding medium: the book.

"We're standing at the edge of the transition in education from paper-based books to e-books and e-material," said Great Books Foundation CFO James Linday. "And of course, nobody really has any idea how it's going to work out there on a broad scale."

Great Books must move into that great unknown while maintaining business as usual: Some 1 million students, 35,000 teachers, and 800 book groups use its programs. The organization also runs a full-fledged online store. It does everything with just 50 employees and a correspondingly small IT staff. As Great Books tries to answer big questions about the era of e-books and the future of reading, it has had to redirect its IT talent accordingly.

[ Read about another company's cloud transformation: Jordache Redesigns IT Around Cloud, Google. ]

"How do we sell an e-book? How do we provide a classroom of e-books in the future?" Linday asked. "It makes an awful lot more sense to have people like [VP of IT] Mark [Gillingham] and [director of IT] Ellen [Youniss] working on those kinds of questions than saying the server needs to be rebooted or the accounting system doesn't work."

Many of those practical IT needs, and the pain points that come with them, resemble similar functions at for-profit small and midsize businesses (SMBs). Great Books' strategy for fulfilling those needs without draining an already shallow pool of resources does, too: It's offloading much of that work to the cloud.

The foundation's transition from on-premises to online began with its legacy accounting system, which Linday said was "a good system 15 years ago" but an increasing source of headaches. "Not only was this system causing us current problems, but it was definitely going to inhibit us in the future," Linday said. Moreover, he and Mark Gillingham, the VP of IT, realized that IT was pinned down exclusively in a maintenance role rather than adding any value to the Great Books mission. They began an "exhaustive" evaluation process of their options, and the cloud move began when they settled on Intacct to replace the previous accounting system. It similarly switched its traditional phone system to M5's VoIP platform.

Today, employees do much of their work online. Great Books uses Moodle and Adobe Connect for online training and meetings. It dumped its email server in favor of Google Apps, which it uses also for collaboration--though it continues to maintain traditional Microsoft Office licenses. Web and other servers are now largely with Amazon Web Services, which it also uses to host video and store large files. The organization also has embraced open source for some needs--SugarCRM is critical to daily operations, for instance, and Great Books used osCommerce behind its online store before recently switching to Magento. It also runs the LAMP stack on its servers, and its website is powered by the Typo3 content management system.

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