Archive for June, 2009

Cloud Computing

Written by Nick B. Nicholaou on . Posted in Articles

© 2009 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from Christian Computing Magazine

Sometimes a buzzword hits the Information Technology industry and really captures people’s attention and imagination.  Cloud Computing is one of those buzzwords, so let’s look at Cloud Computing— what it is and whether it’s ready for primetime.

Cloud Computing—What is it?
There are many definitions floating around (pun intended) for Cloud Computing, here’s a summary in two pieces:

  1. Software available over the Internet that users can access to perform various functions traditionally done by software loaded on the user’s computer (currently called Software-as-a-Service, or SaaS), and
  2. Servers in a datacenter that host the software and the user’s data.

As I said, there are many variations of that definition, but it’s a fair summary.  The cloud gets further defined by whether it’s a public cloud (users pay for services as they’re needed) or a private cloud (servers and services owned by a company for their internal use).  A private cloud is what you would call a system in which a church moves its servers to a datacenter (vs keeping them on the church’s premises) and where only approved users, i.e. staff, have access.

The lure of Cloud Computing includes:

  • The elimination of having to maintain a private network— hardware, software, and infrastructure.
  • Someone else is responsible for backups, server maintenance, engineering, etc.
  • You can get to your data and work on it from anywhere at anytime on any kind of computer (such as PC or Mac) via the Internet.
  • Lower cost overall.

What are its current weaknesses?
In its current state, the cloud may be good for personal use by those who never want to lose their files again because of a hard drive crash or malware infection.  For corporate users— and especially churches— however, it’s just not ready for primetime yet.  Here are a couple of observations:

  • The Internet is not always available.  There are a lot of reasons why, when you need to get to your data, you might not be able to.  There may be an Internet outage where you are or somewhere between you and your data, for example, or a Denial of Service (DoS) attack on a router.  We’ve seen some churches recently who were unable to access their online attendance check-in database during services times, and some others who couldn’t use their Google Apps because the service was down for maintenance (without warning and for about a day— that happened a few times already this year).  Church staff is usually stretched very thin and doesn’t have the luxury of flexing when the system isn’t available.  Some will say that local networks go down too, but that’s usually because of ill-chosen engineering or hardware strategies that could have been easily addressed.
  • Churches maintain some very sensitive data.  Cloud security and privacy are not yet what they need to be to protect sensitive data as it needs to.  And in some states (like the legal trend-setter state I live in), if a church member’s sensitive data is compromised, the church is responsible and will pay.

There was an article recently out of the U.K. that showed a poll of CIOs and IT Directors in which 77% said they will not consider the cloud for at least two years.  Their reasons were its unreliability and its immaturity.

When will it be ready?
UC Berkeley’s RAD Lab believes Cloud Computing will transform the IT industry over the next 10-15 years (see http://www.eecs.berkeley.edu/Pubs/TechRpts/2009/EECS-2009-28.html).  I believe it will happen sooner than that.  We’re already beginning to see pieces of it via Microsoft, Amazon, and Google. 

Mobile devices, like NetBooks and SmartPhones, are growing in popularity and processing capability.  Because of their growing power and some trends in future development, I believe these mobile devices will be the driving force behind the growth of Cloud Computing.  In the next 2-3 years I believe we’ll see many who want to access their data via mobile devices, and Cloud Computing is the right strategy to make that work.

But the Internet must improve its reliability first if corporate America is going to be willing to embrace it, and SaaS providers must improve their up-time.

What should we do now?
Like many, our firm learned the hard way that the best IT decisions use today’s technology to meet today’s needs.  Waiting for what will come means never being able to meet today’s needs because you can’t buy tomorrow’s technology, and buying technology based on what you think may be coming can be very expensive.  So the best advice for the church today is to continue on the local network and infrastructure path until the cloud becomes a viable alternative.

With the world’s most important mission— that of reaching the lost with The Gospel— we can’t afford to wait for what’s coming.  And with staff already stretched thin, we can’t afford to put them on a technology platform that is so inconsistent and immature.  Cloud Computing will likely become a viable standard, but it needs a more time.

TechnoTools for Ministry

Written by Nick B. Nicholaou on . Posted in Articles

© 2009 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from CTI’s Your Church Magazine

Many people make one of two mistakes about church technology needs.  They either underestimate the need and look for the cheapest possible solution (which often costs more because they are the wrong solutions), or they overspend on technology and overcomplicate the system.  Let’s see if we can help find the right balance.

Some Perspective
Right off, it’s important for you to know that my firm doesn’t sell or distribute any hardware or software.  We don’t benefit from the purchase decisions our clients make, and so the recommendations I’m about to share with you are truly objective.

Secondly, it’s helpful for you to know that my firm and I have been serving churches and ministries in the technology field for many years. We have wrestled through many hardware issues on our clients’ behalf.  And we haven’t just worked on a bunch of church and ministry networks; we’ve impacted hundreds of ministry networks, so we’ve seen firsthand what helps and what hurts.

We’ll look at the topic from a few perspectives: church size, desktops and notebooks, and mobile devices like NetBooks and SmartPhones. 

Size Matters!
Church size does matter.  But maybe not the way one might think!

  • Small, medium, and large churches all have in common the need to get a lot done in as little time as possible.  Like all churches, the staff size is not humanly up to the task size, so selecting hardware is important if the decision can impact the ability of the team to be more efficient and productive.
  • Small, medium, and large churches rarely have the budget to have internal IT (Information Technology) staff.  Though large churches begin adding part-time staff assigned the task of supporting other team members, it’s only the megachurch that can typically prioritize having a true IT Department.  That means that most churches are best served by simple system and hardware strategies that increase reliability, which means less need for support.

When hardware purchases are strategized, they can drastically reduce the need for support and improve team productivity.  And that’s especially important given our mission— that of sharing The Gospel and the discipling of believers.

Which is better: Locally Built or Name Brand?
Locally built computers often seem more attractive than name brand computers because:

  • If you ever need support, someone nearby is able to work on the computer; and
  • The price looks attractive.

Both reasons, however, are not usually true.

Though locally built computers are often built with the best of intentions, few local builders have research and development (R&D) budgets that can ensure that each component— even if meticulously selected as best of its kind— works well together.  Thus, they often have higher failure rates.

The Right Name Brands
But not all name brands are created equal! Some name brands haven’t any more R&D in them than locally built systems.  Thus some name brands are little more than locally built systems with national distribution.

How often should you upgrade?
It is wise to budget to replace a percentage of your computers every year.  Doing so is a lot easier to accomplish than having to replace all your systems at the same time because they’re all too old to run current software.

Some issues to consider are:

  • At what point do your computers start slowing down your team?  Personnel costs are typically the highest or second highest part of a church’s budget.  If your team members lose even ten minutes/ day because of older technology, replacements are overdue.
  • Can your computers run current operating systems and software?
  • Are you spending too much time to support your older computers?

With that in mind, we recommend replacing desktop and notebook computers at the rate of at least 25% each year.  When new systems are purchased, we recommend distributing them as follows:

  • Power Users.  Give the new computers to the users that need the most computing power (graphics, database maintenance, accounting).
  • Average Users.  Give the power users’ old computers to those who have average computing power needs (word processing).
  • Nominal Users.  Give the average users’ old computers to those who don’t use the computer as much (email, web browsing).

What do users want?
The twofold answer is:

  • Features.  Church team members want systems that are reliable, can run up-to-date operating systems (Windows version) and software, and don’t cause them to fatigue early in the workday (like from fuzzy displays).

A note about Windows:  Windows Vista has not been adopted by most corporations, and for good reason.  We are testing the final beta of its successor, Windows 7, and it shows great promise.  We hope it will be as solid in final release.

  • Ministry Impact.  Church team members want features that improve their ability to achieve their ministry goals.  That may include the ability to connect to networked resources (like printers and scanners) and the Internet, store data reliably for future use, have email and other communication tools, and safety mechanisms to protect them from the time-sapping effects of malicious programs embedded in some websites, emails, and files.

Desktop Computers
These are non-portable computers used by team members who always work in the office.  They often have faster processors than notebooks (portable computers) because of their superior ability to disperse heat from the processor chipset.  They also usually cost a lot less than notebooks.  Most of our clients buy Dell Optiplex desktop computers.  The Optiplex line is Dell’s enterprise desktop computer, meaning it has more R&D to achieve higher reliability on corporate networks. Our basic church desktop spec is an Optiplex 760 (2.8Ghz Intel Dual Core processor, 2Gb RAM, 80Gb hard drive, Gigabit NIC, 17″ flat panel monitor, keyboard, and optical mouse) running Windows XP Pro SP3.

Dell includes a 3-year, next-day on-site warranty, taking you out of the hardware support business (which saves lots of time and money).  This desktop spec is about $865 (June, 2009).

Notebook Computers
Dell has the lead in the notebook market too.  Our current minimum spec is the 4.3lb Dell Latitude E6400 (2.53 Intel Dual Core processor, 2Gb RAM, 160gb hard drive, 14.1” WXGA monitor, Gigabit NIC, WiFi, Bluetooth, WebCam, backlit keyboard, DVD, Spare A/C Adapter, running WinXP Pro SP3 with a 3-Year Next-Day On-Site Warranty including Accident Coverage) for about $1550 (June, 2009).

For those wanting something a little smaller and lighter (only 2.2lbs), we spec the Dell Latitude E4200 (1.4 Intel Dual Core processor, 2Gb RAM, 64gb solid state hard drive, 12.1” WXGA monitor, Gigabit NIC, WiFi, Bluetooth, backlit keyboard, DVD, Spare A/C Adapter, running WinXP Pro SP3 with a 3-Year Next-Day On-Site Warranty including Accident Coverage) for about $1770 (June, 2009).  Though smaller and lighter, this notebooks is still a solid network computer.

Netbook Computers
Netbook computers are much smaller than notebook computers.  Some of their characteristics are smaller keyboards and monitors, less powerful processors, and fewer connection ports (for printers, etc).  Their advantages are that they’re very light (1½ – 3lbs) and usually very inexpensive ($150 – $550).  They’re not good network computers, but they can be very helpful portable systems for those who travel a lot and want Internet access.  If you want to do much more than that, we recommend you bump up to the Dell 4200 which weighs the same as many netbook computers.

SmartPhones
SmartPhones (such as the iPhone) can make some of the tools we like on our computers very portable.  SmartPhones are challenging to recommend, however, because each brand and/ or model is typically only offered with one cellular carrier.  For instance, the Apple iPhone is only available to AT&T customers, the Google G1 is only available to T-Mobile customers, the PalmPre is only available to Sprint customers, etc.  This marketing strategy is unfortunate because it doesn’t allow consumers to look for the device that best meets their needs and have it activated on their network.  Instead, consumers are often bound by contract to a cellular carrier and thus must look to the best solution offered by their carrier.

The SmartPhone with the most applications that meet consumers’ needs is the most likely to win in the marketplace.  Currently that device is the Apple iPhone— but if you’re not an AT&T customer or are not willing to switch to AT&T, it’s not an option for you.

In addition to many applications to choose from, the features that most corporate users want include:

  • QWERTY Keyboard.  That’s what the standard U.S. computer keyboard layout is called; it gets its name from the first six alpha keys on the keyboard.
  • Email System Synchronization.  The ability to synchronize with your corporate email system, such as Outlook/ Exchange, is very helpful.  This can include emails, contacts, tasks, calendars, and more! Look for the ability to select which of these will synchronize so you can turn off emails if you find that including them doesn’t let you get away from the office.
  • Files.  The ability to create text documents on your SmartPhone and then synchronize them to your computer system can be very helpful.  It can even eliminate the need to carry a notebook or netbook computer!
  • Church Management System.  CMS database companies are increasing the ability for SmartPhones to securely access their databases so authorized users can look up congregation members, post attendance, and more!
  • Text Messaging.  Most phones— smart or otherwise— can do this today.  There is a growing segment of most church congregations— and not just the youth!— that want to communicate via text messaging and similar technologies like Twitter.  QWERTY keyboards make this much easier, but make sure your cellular plan includes a generous amount of texting so you’re not surprised when you get your statement!

Where to Buy
Through a special arrangement with Dell, you can purchase hardware at a discount by calling their representative who is focused on helping those who are referred to Dell by our firm, MBS.  Because Dell reps change, I recommend going to our website (www.mbsinc.com), selecting the Links option, and then choosing the hardware category.  We keep the Dell link there updated so that you’ll know who to call and how to reach them— just make certain you tell them you’re calling at MBS’ recommendation (we don’t receive any proceeds for referrals).

What About Macs?
I prefer the MacBook Pro notebooks to their standard notebooks because of the extra engineering that goes into them.  Apple has a House of Worship market team that can save you money, and they’re great.  Contact Chris Miller (chris.miller@apple.com, 916/399-7404) for details.

Well, there you have it.  These TechnoTool strategy recommendations will help empower your ministry team to accomplish more in less time.