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Next Steps for the Cloud

We’re in the midst of a transformation in how IT services are being delivered.

November 10, 2011

We’re in the midst of a transformation in how IT services are being delivered. As in most transformations, it needs a catch phrase, and this one is called ‘the cloud.’ I’m sure it will be renamed sometime soon, but whatever the name we give it, it will continue to change  the face of IT and open up many new possibilities for how IT can address developing world problems.

Across the NetHope 34 INGO members, cloud-based services have already powered some of our successful ICT solutions. The key here is finding architectures that are in high demand areas and can be reused across our members.

Member organization Catholic Relief Services, for example, helped initiate a solution for a field worker and education/training platform. It uses a rugged laptop with an occasionally connected cloud solution for NGO field workers assisting  farmers in East and Central Africa who need training on the Cassava crop disease. Cassava is known as the 'potato of Africa' and the disease has been causing a famine in the region. With the use of cloud services, NGO workers can train farmers at record pace, enabling farmers to grow disease resistant strains of Cassava, literally saving the lives of many. This solution is now being replicated across a variety of field worker and training solution areas including Child Fund International's child sponsorship programs, the World Vision/Catholic Relief Services/Child Fund Cloud-based Shared Content project.

Cloud solutions require significantly less cost, billing for only the services being used and at low utility-like rates. This allows IT departments to scale up and scale down as needed without over- or under- utilizing their resources. The time it takes to deploy Cloud-based infrastructure is a fraction of what it once was; building and deploying infrastructure once required teams of engineers with screwdrivers, but now infrastructure can be deployed at significant cost savings.

While Cloud-based infrastructure eliminates many of the headaches associated with on-premises IT infrastructure, it is not without challenges. While hardware aspects of infrastructure like servers, disks, routers and networking devices are abstracted away in a Cloud environment, the 'soft' side of infrastructure still remains a critical element to address: security and authentication, interfaces to enterprise systems, integrated business process flows to just name a few. And while most aspects of the infrastructure will be made available thru the Cloud, some elements will still need to be physically with the user such as devices and some aspect of local storage.

To further utilize Cloud-based solutions within the NGO community, NetHope and its members created the NetHope Humanitarian Cloud program. It was agreed that cloud solutions could be the way to lower IT costs, quickly implement and support communities and extend the reach of current humanitarian and development efforts. A critical element to enable cloud services is connectivity, and now connectivity solutions can be much more easily modified to accommodate field conditions, where broadband has become significantly more available as has WiFi and Wi-Max extensions.

Over the past nine months, we have been able to shape our program through initial surveys with our member organizations. The over-riding priority of the NGOs was how to accelerate the use of Cloud Services across  both the front office — program areas and field work — and the back office — functions such as IT, Finance, Supply Chain, and Procurement.  Our program plans to share available cloud services through a portal enabling access to existing marketplaces, and to identify the best premiere services within that inventory.  With the diverse expertise brought to the table by our robust membership, we hope to create access to solutions for the needs of all development sectors — water, healthcare, education, agriculture, microfinance, etc.

Moving forward, we intend to incentivize cloud providers to be listed in our portal, and then further evolve those listings to be ‘Preferred’ and ‘Premiere.’ All NGO Cloud services would be listed in our application portal, but those Cloud service applications highly rated by NGOs would be labeled as ‘Preferred.’ NetHope member organizations would deem the best of the best applications as ‘Premiere.’

One of the key aspects of the NetHope Humanitarian and Development Cloud Services program is that it is, and will continue to be, member-driven. Member organizations will define the requirements needed  for applications to be listed in the inventory as well as the design of the portal that will allow NGOs to see and access the cloud services applications. An important feature of the portal is a rating system both at a crowd sourced and 'expert/NGO' rating. This rating is especially important for the NGOs to know how their peers view the quality and use cases of various Cloud Services.

Some people quote Roosevelt, some people quote Churchill, some John F. Kennedy, but in this case, I quote Intel’s Chief Strategist, Chris Thomas: “The Cloud has a ‘leapfrog’ effect. It harnesses technology to rapidly and affordably deploy services to people it’s never reached before.” I wholeheartedly  agree with this. Just like mobile phones enabled the developing world to ‘leapfrog’ past fixed line phones, the cloud is similar; I would say even more of leapfrog, a leapfrog right past the heavy infrastructure required by the solutions we built in the 1980s and 1990s.

This transformation is underway and the potential is incredibly exciting. And I'm quite certain that the impact here for the developing world will truly be profound.

Contact Jack by e-mail here.

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