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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.

Great Books now supports only two major pieces of infrastructure in-house, a file server and Windows terminal server system, although even those are relied upon less and less. It's well on its way to being an all-cloud company.

The organization measures return on investment in a variety of ways, from its ability to reallocate resources to the fact that it no longer pays the electric bill on an air-conditioned server closet. Linday also sees a forward-looking ROI: "We've set the stage for a 25% increase in [sales] volume," he said. "Hopefully, it will come--and we don't see the need to add any additional staff to make that happen."

Linday recounted another facet of ROI. When Chicago, where Great Books is based, recently hosted the G-8 Summit, there were significant concerns about potential violence near the organization's offices. Executives made the call to temporarily close the offices and have everyone work from home. Linday estimated they operated at 80% of normal volume, and none of their customers knew the office was shut down. "I hope we don't have to do that again, but we demonstrated to ourselves that these cloud-based applications have more advantages than just my--the numbers guy--counting that they're more cost-efficient," Linday said.

Gillingham, the VP of IT, sounds a lot like his peer executives at other SMBs when discussing the appeal of the cloud. "We are a pretty small place and we have a really small IT team," he said. "Putting things off to other people or organizations to do has been a strategy." In a sense, Gillingham's user base extends well beyond the 50 employees--it includes the thousands who consume and discuss Great Books' material and who expect technology to help them do so.

Moving the IT backbone to online isn't without its hiccups. Youniss, the IT director, said the fundamental changes to how the company controls and accesses its accounting data, for example, have caused some reporting headaches and related issues. The IT team also realized that its existing T-1 service wasn't sufficient to meet the increased bandwidth needs that come with near-total reliance on the Web. It eventually upgraded to fiber, which Youniss noted was a significant but necessary expense to ensure optimal performance.

Gillingham pointed out an interesting challenge that comes from relying on applications that don't follow old-world software release cycles. "That turns out to be one of the downsides of Google Apps: It changes more than we do," he said. "That throws [users] off. We're used to using our yellow pads for decades, rather than changing software every month or so. Even little things like a cosmetic change on a page sometimes gets a reaction from one of our staff."

In fact, that's a key reason why Great Books continues to use the desktop version of Microsoft Office. Several years back, the organization tried to cut costs by dropping the ubiquitous productivity suite in favor of Open Office, but users revolted--they kept using Word and Excel even though IT was no longer supporting them. "Microsoft over the years has done an unbelievable job of trying to instill in our basic DNA that we can't live without [Office]," Linday said. That's slowly beginning to change; Gillingham noted that editors that once spent much of their day in Word, for example, are now increasingly using Google Docs, particularly when collaborating with people spread around the globe.

Indeed, users don't always love every aspect of the Great Books' move to the cloud. "Users always resist change," Gillingham said, adding that IT has tried to tout the advantages of new technologies rather than simply saying they are required by the company. "We've had so few resources in the past that having any resources at all seems like candy. We've tried to use carrots rather than sticks to try to get people to conform to the applications that we can support."

Cloud services can play a role in any BC/DR plan. Yet just 23% of 414 business technology pros responding to our 2011 Business Continuity/Disaster Recovery Survey use services as part of their application and data resiliency strategies, even though half (correctly) say it would reduce overall recovery times. Our The Cloud's Role In BC/DR report shows how the combination of cloud backup and IaaS offerings can be a beneficial part of a "DR 2.0" plan. (Free registration required.)

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